Black Abstraction (1927) by Georgia O'Keeffe
Meaning and Interpretation of American Abstract Painting

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Black Abstraction
By Georgia O'Keeffe.
Regarded as one of the
greatest abstract paintings
of the 1920s.

Black Abstraction (1927)


Explanation of other 20th Century Paintings


Name: Black Abstraction (1927)
Artist: Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Abstract art
Movement/Style: Biomorphic abstraction
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of paintings
by modern artists like
Georgia O'Keeffe, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Black Abstraction by Georgia O'Keeffe

An important figure in 20th century American art, O'Keeffe explored Precisionism as well as non-objective art, before settling on near-abstract compositions based on the enlarged forms of flowers and plants. Black Abstraction dates from her abstract period of the 1920s. Continually innovative, she is considered to be a pioneer of modern art in North America. (See also O'Keeffe's Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue, 1931.)

When the noted photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) first saw Georgia O'Keeffe's work in 1916 he reportedly exclaimed: "Finally a woman on paper!" Through his series of galleries - '291', The Intimate Gallery, and An American Place - Stieglitz was to give his full support to O'Keeffe, becoming her dealer and, in 1924, her husband.

O'Keeffe's stylistic breakthrough had occurred while she was teaching in a small town in South Carolina, only a few months before her work was seen by Stieglitz. When the artist reviewed her own work, she found in it only the influences of her teachers, and she resolved to start anew. "I have things in my head", she wrote, "that are not like what anyone has taught me - shapes and ideas so near to me - so natural to my way of being and thinking that it hasn't occurred to me to put them down". It was at this time that she developed the sensuous, organic forms of her work into the personal style that established her reputation as one of the pioneers of modernism in America.

O'Keeffe found in nature symbolic equivalents for her inner emotional states and developed a vocabulary of forms based on observation. Isolated from their natural context, her subjects - predominantly flowers, landscapes and bones - were simplified in form and detail to transcend the particular and become abstract symbols of nature's generative force.

Austere in design and in its restricted palette, Black abstraction is one of the most abstract of O'Keeffe's paintings. Three circular elements dominate the composition, diminishing in size from the outermost black disc through the grey arc to the white dot which serves as the focal point of the painting. Cutting through these forms is the only other compositional element, an undulating grey-white line, reminiscent of a rolling hillside or body contour, in which the white dot nestles. The diagonal flow of the line across the picture serves to counter the movement of the concentric circles, securing the dot in the vast black space. Acknowledged as the foremost woman artist of her time, O'Keeffe was criticized for her 'emotional' colours ("you weren't supposed to paint yellow pictures, you weren't supposed to paint pink pictures"), but in Black abstraction she has adopted an aggressively plain palette. In spite of the sombre associations of this tonal range, O'Keeffe's black is soft and velvety, no less sensuous than her previous 'feminine' colour schemes, and this work possibly represents her most successful exploitation of the emotive power of colour. (See Colour in Painting, for more.)

The painting in fact represents the crystallization of a moment of emotion and was prompted by an incident in the summer of 1927 when O'Keeffe was operated on at Mount Sinai Hospital, New York, for a benign lump in her breast. She recalls: "I was on a stretcher in a large room, two nurses hovering over me, a very large skylight above me. I had decided to be conscious as long as possible. I heard the doctor washing his hands. The skylight began to whirl and slowly became smaller and smaller in a black space. I lifted my right arm overhead and dropped it. As the skylight became a small white dot in a black room, I lifted my left arm over my head. As it started to drop and the white dot became very small, I was gone." A few weeks later all this became Black abstraction.

Explanation of other 20th Century American Paintings

Lighthouse at Two Lights (1929) by Edward Hopper.
Coastal landscape from the master of 'silent paintings'.

American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood.
Iconic Regionalist painting.

Midnight Ride of Paul Revere (1931) by Grant Wood.
Iconic American image.

Nighthawks (1942) by Edward Hopper.
Edgy 'film-noir' genre painting.

Pasiphae (1943) by Jackson Pollock.
Early expressionist painting from the star of the New York School.

Seated Woman (1944) by Willem de Kooning.
The Beginning (triptych) (1949) by Max Beckmann.


• For the meaning of other modernist abstracts, see: Homepage.

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