An exhibition and new research shed light on the life and work of Ida O’Keeffe, sister of Georgia and an under-recognized modernist painter.
Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the best-known names in American modern art, maybe the best-known. Her sister Ida, on the other hand, is one of the least well-known. Only now, almost 60 years after her death, is her achievement as a painter and printmaker even beginning to be recognized in the world of art history. Instrumental in that reclamation process is an exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art titled “Ida O’Keeffe” Escaping Georgia’s Shadow.” Organized by Sue Canterbury, the Pauline Gill Sullivan Associate Curator of American Art at the DMA, it runs from November 18, 2018–February 24, 2019. Canterbury and her team followed every available thread, piecing together the fragments of a life that was often difficult and that in some ways still remains opaque. Beyond considering her art in detail, the exhibition’s catalogue is also the first biography of Ida O’Keeffe, which is appropriate given that the reasons why her art slipped into obscurity have a great deal to do with the circumstances of her life and her relationship with her famous sister.
Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe was born in Wisconsin in 1889, two years after Georgia. She was one of five O’Keeffe sisters, and there were also two brothers. In this large, competitive, culturally ambitious, and financial insecure family, Ida stood out as particularly independent and self-willed. She showed an early interest in drawing, coupled with talent. When she was 13, the O’Keeffes moved to Williamsburg, Va., where she went through high school, after which she attended some summer school courses at the University of Virginia, including drawing. From 1913–17 she taught drawing in elementary schools in rural districts of southwestern Virginia. When the U.S. entered World War I, Ida moved to New York, where Georgia and two of the other sisters were living, to study nursing and thereby help the war effort. This led to a somewhat intermittent career in nursing over the next decade.
It wasn’t until she was over 35 years old, in 1925, that Ida took up painting and decided to become a serious artist. Her inspiration came at least in part from seeing Georgia’s career take off, as well as from the time she and her sisters spent with the photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz—Georgia’s dealer, mentor, and eventually husband—at his summer home in Lake George, N.Y. Stieglitz flirted heavily with Ida, which made Georgia jealous and Ida uncomfortable. But he did recognize her skill at flower arranging, which she eventually transformed into floral still life painting. He also introduced Ida to a circle of artists and writers including the sculptor Arnold Rönnebeck and the critic Paul Rosenfeld, whom she came within a hair’s breadth of marrying.
In 1927, after about two years of dedicated painting, Ida had her first exhibition, in a group show of mostly women artists organized by Georgia at the well-named Opportunity Gallery in Manhattan. In order to avoid any appearance of nepotism, she dropped her surname and was listed in the catalogue as “Ida Ten Eyck.” The works she showed, which were straight-ahead realist still lifes for the most part and not particularly modernist in style, received some good notices, including one in the recently-launched New Yorker. But it was when she enrolled in the art program at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1929 that she truly came into her own as a modernist painter.
Ida’s teacher there was Charles James Martin, who had been a student of Arthur Wesley Dow. Martin espoused “essence rather than form” and “interpretation rather than faithful representation,” although he also emphasized the importance of geometry. After graduating in 1932, Ida spent time on Cape Cod, and there she encountered a subject that would serve as the basis for her most highly regarded body of work, the Lighthouse Series. The Highland Light at North Truro was built in 1797 and is a piece of New England history, but Ida, in a personal artistic breakthrough, made it into a beacon of modernism. Of the seven paintings she made of the lighthouse, only the first (now lost) was a literal depiction. In the rest, she recast the straight lines of the structure as curves, made the beams of light emanating from it seem as solid as the building itself, and took one maritime iconographic element—such as a seagull or a fish—and embedded it into the composition in a completely organic way. For colors, she used only black, white, blue, and yellow.
She explained her thinking as follows: “I developed the other pictures in an abstract way, experimenting with the power of color. With each progressive lighthouse, new colors and compositions were introduced, each one becoming more radiant in color and more complicated in composition.” She may also have used the method of Dynamic Symmetry, a system based on the Fibonacci series or “golden number” that was propounded by the Yale art professor Jay Hambidge during the 1920s and became quite influential. A fascinating chapter of the catalogue, by Francesca Soriano, is devoted to a computer analysis of the Lighthouse series that superimposes the geometric patterns of Dynamic Symmetry on the paintings, showing how well they fit.
The 1930s and ’40s were the high point of Ida’s career as an artist, during which she exhibited fairly widely. She painted in a variety of modes—modernist floral still life, American Scene-style regionalism, and even full abstraction, as in Creation, an astonishing work that synthesizes two- and three-dimensional geometric shapes and a palette of swirling, blending colors. Unlike her sister Georgia, however, she was never able to make a living from her art. Throughout her life, she cycled between nursing, teaching, writing, and painting, never achieving financial security. She moved around the country 13 times in search of work, eventually settling in Whittier, Calif., and this lack of stability also made it harder for her to gain traction as an artist. After her death in 1961, some of her works became lost; some ended up in thrift shops, and one of the great Lighthouse paintings was found at an antique flea market in Glendale, Calif.
The authors of the catalogue title their concluding section “If Only She Had Had a Stieglitz,” referring to the decisive effect that Stieglitz’s advocacy of Georgia’s work had on her career. By contrast, they write, “Ida’s life proves that exceptional talent and ambition don’t necessarily ensure success and acclaim for an artist.” In that era, for a woman artist in particular success in the art world could be very difficult indeed, and Ida may have had some personal traits, such as her tendency to sacrifice her own needs for those of others, that further hindered her progress. But her work that survives will now have a life of its own, and this exhibition should do much to open people’s eyes to a valuable and enduring contribution to modern art.
By John Dorfman