Ida O’keeffe: Clark Art Institute recovers a vanished Modern artist

She is making a monotype print with a clothes iron. At the end of a long day, she works by the light of the desk lamp. Her hands are smudged with ink. She is half painting and half sculpting a bare hill crosshatched in dusk and shadow with a figure standing alone in the grass.

It could be Southern California chaparral or the foothills of the Ozarks, or the Adirondacks — she has lived in many places. It could be the valley of the Yahara River in Wisconsin, where she was born.

Her sister is known as a founder of U.S. Modernism. And few people know she exists. After her lifetime, her oil paintings and prints will be scattered and lost and forgotten, until now. Ida O’keeffe appears this summer at the Clark Art Institute in the first retrospective show of her work.

“Anyone who sees this show will know more about Ida than anyone else on earth,” said Robert Wiesenberger, the Clark’s associate curator of contemporary projects.

Sue Canterbury, associate curator of American art at the Dallas Museum of Art, has not only curated this show — she has created it almost out of thin air.

It began casually, Wiesenberger said, on a day when Canterbury walked into the house of a collector in Dallas and saw a lighthouse.

It gleamed in glazes of oil paint. Its beam played over the dark sea in a vigorous geometry, in patterns of light and shadow. It was a realistic scene abstracted: the Provincetown coast in an urban Modernist style.

Canterbury was stunned by the painting and amazed to learn that the artist was Georgia O’keeffe’s sister. She was amazed to learn that Georgia O’keeffe had a sister. A sister who had exhibited in New York and won praise.

Ida was a polymath, Wiesenberger said — bright, self-taught, self-propelled and infinitely curious.

This show is revising the historical record, he said, to bring her in. “It’s an exciting moment.”

Collecting Ida

After that first encounter, Canterbury went looking for Ida O’keeffe across the country.

She had no archive, Wiesenberger said, no ready collection of letters, press articles or family papers. Ida exhibited her work regularly in the 1930s and 40s, and occasionally into the 1950s, in New York galleries and regional shows, but records of her work are scarce, and records of her thoughts are scarcer.

So Canterbury crowdsourced. She gathered words and images in a vast scavenger hunt.

She put out a call in the New York Times and other places, and responses came from coast to coast. Paintings surfaced at thrift shops and an antique flea market in southern California, she writes in the catalog.

A few photographs surfaced by her brother-in-law, Georgia’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz — and with them a darker tangle of history.

The traces Ida’s family have left of her suggest that Ida did not vanish as an accident of the time, or the challenges any woman artist faced in the early 20th century, or because she began as a lesser light.

The people who knew her acknowledged a light in her. And her brilliant sister and prominent brother-in-law seem to have tried to snuff her out.

Striking the spark

The show begins with Ida herself, in photographs from the summer of 1924, when she visited Georgia and Stieglitz on the shore of Lake George. She is laughing, blowing out candles. Her hosts describe her as healthy and balanced. She would walk in with her hands full of wildflowers. She brightened the room and moved her hosts to laughter and release.

“(She) makes a specialty of taking care of herself,” Georgia wrote in a letter “— she rides horseback every morning — and is kind to herself in general.”

Ida was an outgoing, outdoor woman. She was intelligent and tenacious, Canterbury writes in the show’s catalog: As a girl in Wisconsin, Ida refused school and spent her childhood in the woods, until at 10 she decided she wanted to learn to write and finished eight grades in four years.

She grew into an independent woman, and for some years Georgia and her husband seemed to be Ida’s closest family.

She was teaching in elementary school in 1916, when her mother died. Following a Red Cross call for nurses in World War I, she was studying medicine at Mount Sinai in New York in 1917 and 1918, in a hospital short-staffed between and the influenza epidemic, when her father died on armistice day. She was not yet 30.

Heading to the lighthouse

Across the next 10 years, Canterbury traces her, working as a private nurse, walking through gardens along the coast and wanting to paint the bayberry scrub and shrimp boats at sunset.

Ida had taken art classes as a child and as a teenager, and in and around jobs she taught herself when she could. She painted on vacations, and in 1927 Georgia included some of Ida’s work in an exhibit she curated at the Opportunity Gallery in New York.

A month before the stock market crash, she entered Teachers College in Columbia, in Fine Art and Health Education, to earn her bachelor’s of science and a master’s degree in fine art. And it brought her to the lighthouses.

Wiesenberger sees this series as the signature wall in this summer’s show. They hang luminous in the dark gallery. each one more abstract. The light fractures in planes and prisms and arcs like a leaping fish.

Wiesenberger and Canterbury follow the curves into dynamic symmetry, design based on geometry. Many Modern artists adopted the practice, he said, and brought forms into their compositions like the golden ratio, the nautilus spiral. He sees it here as light curves into the roof-line of an outbuilding.

Ida saw the Highland Light at North Truro in the summer of 1931 on Cape Cod, Canterbury writes, in a summer course with a Columbia art professor, Charles Martin, and she finished the paintings for her master’s thesis.

She was 42.

The artist at work

Ida came to oil paintings late, Wiesenberger said, partly because women then had no encouragement to try them.

She explored monotypes more often. In these one-time prints, the artist carves or etches into a sleek surface that will not soak up ink, and then she spreads ink over the surface and presses a sheet of paper onto it.

Wiesenberger is drawn to these dappled and moonlit landscapes.

Ida described monoprinting as lying “in the half-shadow between painting and printmaking,” in an article she published in the journal, Prints. She describes her tools and technique,”brushes, hard or soft, rags, fingers, or all combined to get a gradation of tones from absolute black to a great variety of greys.”

She would use “a stiff hog’s hair brush or a bit of wood pointed at the end to pick out highlights. … the monotyper works with paint almost as the sculptor works with clay, adding and subtracting until the design takes form under (her) touch.”

The setup was portable, Wiesenberger said, and she could set up a private studio in a small apartment or teacher’s housing, and take it with her when she moved.

And she moved often. This was America in the Depression and World War II, and Ida was paying her own way. She worked full time, moving from one temporary position to another. She would move every year or two, from New York to Missouri, Tennessee, Texas, Oregon.

“This is story about what happens when a great talent doesn’t get the support she needs,” Wiesenberger said.

Hiding the light

Why, with her sister in the sun, did Ida have so little exposure?

Stieglitz launched Georgia’s career, exhibiting her work and drawing on extensive connections to give her exposure few woman artists could have hoped for.

Ida did not have that kind of support, Wiesenberger said, even within her family.

Canterbury looks into her relationship with Georgia, wondering how Ida can have been so completely forgotten while her sister has kept her well-earned place as a revered American artist.

The sisters appear together here in two photographs.

“We see a rare unguarded joy,” Wiesenberger said, “and then an austere double portrait.”

Georgia is looking at the camera and the photographer, and Ida is paying attention to something out of the frame.

The exhibit makes clear, and the essays in the catalog still clearer, that Ida had strong reasons not to look at her brother-in-law. He and Georgia seem to have been for a time Ida’s closest family, after her parents died. But he had been making a determined pass at Ida on visits like this one, even to watching her sleep and then telling her, deliberately frightening her. He was 25 years older than she was. She told him bluntly to stop.

Later he broke up her engagement to a young man who apparently cared more for being an artistic hanger-on than for her, and he used his influence against her.

“Sue says Stieglitz suppressed her work,” Wiesenberger said. “He actually told a gallery owner not to show her.”

He would catalyze a breakup of the family.

As Ida and Catherine were preparing for solo shows at the Delphic Studios, Canterbury writes, making their first clear appearances as artists in New York, Georgia had won a mural for the new Rockefeller Center’s Radio City Music Hall. While she was battling burnout and watching her mural literally fall apart, he was criticizing her work and having an affair with a hopeful art student 40 years younger.

Georgia hospitalized herself for depression.

“She was having a breakdown,” Wiesenberger said.

And at this anguished moment, the press began talking about the O’keeffe family of artists. Georgia came apart. She demanded that Ida and Catherine stop exhibiting their work, Wiesenberger said. Catherine did. Ida did not. And the exchange caused a rift that never healed.

Ida O'keeffe's The Fish appears at the Clark Art Institute. Courtesy of the collection of Allison Webster Kramer.
Clark Art Institute

Ida O'keeffe's The Fish appears at the Clark Art Institute. Courtesy of the collection of Allison Webster Kramer.

Banking the fire

Her paintings show an eye for the natural world throughout her life — mushrooms in the Northeast, black lilies on the West Coast. In later years she painted nocturnes in the midwest, Wiesenberger said, dreamlike night scenes in a shadowed palette.

Visiting her brother in Cuba, she walked the beaches and painted banana leaves in vivid light. Some of her works are almost realist. Islands lift out of a calm sea at sunset. And some recall futurism, Wiesenberger said, in their fragmented light.

He stands looking at a geometric abstract in oils and brilliant hues, and he wonders what she might have painted, if she had had the time and freedom.

For her this canvas is a rare foray into total abstraction, Wiesenberger said. She called it ‘Creation,’ and he sees an elemental force in it, a dynamic tension between fire and water.

A curve deepens from gold to crimson like a ripe peach. The shades pulse and shift like mare’s tails over a fall sky or the surface of Jupiter.

By the Way Berkshires is a digital magazine exploring creative life and community — art and performance, food and the outdoors — and I’m writing it for you, with local voices, because I’ve gotten to know this rich part of the world as a writer and journalist, and I want to share it with you.

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