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Georgia O’Keeffe’s Geometry: on High-Fidelity Abstraction

In "Lives of Red Stone River," WID Director David Krakauer profiles influential Wisconsinites. His essay on Sun Prairie-born artist Georgia O'Keeffe reveals how mathematicians, scientists and artists share truth and beauty.

Georgia O'Keeffe New Mexico

Lives of Red Stone River is a profile series by WID Director David Krakauer examining the people, places and ideas that exemplify creative life in the state of Wisconsin. The series searches for the “imaginative center of gravity in a local constellation of creative lives and places,” Krakauer says.

“In 1935, native Ojibwe speakers recognized the three syllables [in Wisconsin] as phonetic equivalents of ‘Misko’ (red), ‘Ahsin’ (stone) and ‘Sin,’ an ending that signifies a location or place. By this reasoning, Mesconsing / Ouisconsin / Wisconsin meant, ‘Red Stone River.’ Glossaries of Algonquian languages, including Ojibwe and Sauk, confirm that these syllables had the same meanings 300 years ago as they do today.” — Wisconsin Historical Society

The Cliff Chimneys

Milwaukee Museum of Art
The Cliff Chimneys, 1938. Oil on canvas 36 × 30 in. (91.44 × 76.2 cm)

“Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”

― Georgia O’Keeffe

Geomorphology inscribes on the earth stony histories of the United States. Few of these petrological chronicles are more visibly ancient than the formations of the American South West – once mesozoic ocean basins of the supercontinent, Pangea.

Along the Colorado Plateau-Rio Grande rift margin in north-central New Mexico sits the Abiquiu embayment—a prismatic remnant of an ancient bay rich in brachiopods, crinoids and trilobites.

From these fossilized remnants of life, and the churn of uplifting and volcanism, the landscape has contrived a pallete and arrangement of stone so provocatively strange and so stunningly illuminated as to prove near irresistible to artists — foremost among them — Georgia O’Keeffe.

Daughter of Wisconsin dairy farmers from Sun Prairie, second of seven, student at the Sacred Heart Academy in Madison, early critic of imitative realism, and uncompromising seeker after a private language of art — “To create one’s own world takes courage” — O’Keeffe found a sensuality among the inorganic realms of prehistory that society had lost.

“The works of O’Keeffe propose a profound way in which mathematicians, scientists and artists converge―in their dedication to perceived reality.”

–David Krakauer

It is alleged that abstraction is a retreat from realism into the language of simplicity, utility or obsession. O’Keeffe’s paintings of rockforms and flowers have attracted censure for their erotic symbolism. As Lewis Mumford—doyen of urban theory and technology—wrote in his review of an O’Keeffe exhibition from the 1930s, it was “one long, loud blast of sex.”

Mathematics and the mathematical sciences suggest an alternative possibility—that abstract representations bring us closer to reality by presenting patterns more clearly, or more saliently, to the inquiring mind. There is this clue from the astronomer Tycho Brahe: “So Mathematical Truth prefers simple words since the language of Truth is itself simple.” And later, Bertrand Russell: “Mathematics possesses not only truth but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere, like that of a sculpture.”

There is no better example of high-fidelity abstraction than in O’Keeffe’s landscape paintings from Abiquiu of the 1930s and 1940s. Placing photographs next to paintings of the same places, Barbara Buhler Lynes shows how abstract paintings nevertheless preserve the geometry and details of reality. When compared with a photograph taken in 2004, “The Cliff Chimneys” (painted in 1938, and which can been seen at the beautiful Milwaukee Museum of Art) shows that the shapes and distances among all elements of the composition are faithfully represented and preserved: there is nothing added, not a turret, dale, tree, boulder, rock or shrub. The O’Keeffe painting is like a map of the perceptual landscape, not a subjective impression of a place. In “Cedar Tree with Lavendar Hills” (1937) you can count and position the juniper trees still present in a photograph taken in the 2000s on the brow of a mesa. And every arroyo is exactly where it is today in “My Red Hills,” painted in 1938.

The works of O’Keeffe propose a profound way in which mathematicians, scientists and artists converge—in their dedication to perceived reality—“Nothing is art if it does not come from nature” (Antoni Gaudi). While this can seem strange when confronted by such speculative analytical beasts as super-strings, Lie algebras, categories, and Klein bottles, close attention and patience reveals that these are just some of the words and languages that nature uses when whispering its communications to humanity.

David Krakauer

Lynes, Barbara Buhler, Lesley Poling-Kempes, and Frederick W. Turner. Georgia O’ Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place. Princeton University Press, 2004.


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More articles in Lives of Redstone River:

Frederick Jackson Turner illustration from Wisconsin Historical Society

Frederick Jackson Turner: The Revolutionary Frontier

In “Lives of Red Stone River,” WID’s director writes about influential Wisconsinites. The first essay in the series focuses on historian Frederick Jackson Turner and lessons learned from physical and metaphorical frontiers.