In 1908, painter Georgia O’Keeffe was feeling discouraged about her artistic career and decided to abandon it. She got a job as a commercial artist in Chicago for a few years, then went to Columbia University to pursue her teaching degree. By the time she took a job in 1915 as a teacher at Columbia College, here in Columbia, she was trying her hand at being a painter again.
It was at Columbia College that O’Keeffe created her charcoal “Specials” series, some of which she mailed to her friend, the photographer Anita Pollitzer, who showed them to influential photographer and exhibition organizer Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz was extremely impressed with the drawings and helped established O’Keeffe as one of the giants of American painting.
Now, 100 years later, the Columbia Museum of Art has collected O’Keeffe’s paintings from this period to celebrate her turning point at Columbia College. A beautifully curated collection, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Her Carolina Story” includes many of O’Keeffe’s iconic oil paintings, charcoal pieces and watercolors, often including images representing several steps in the process of a painting, showing how O’Keeffe approaches both realistic and abstract images.
The abstract side is where O’Keeffe’s painting becomes especially compelling. Always dynamic and suggestive, pieces like “Blue Line” and “Tent Door at Night” illustrate the in-between status of light being seen by the eyes and being understood by the brain, registering emotionally before being understood as an image. Many of the “Specials,” as well, give a strong, definite impression without revealing clear information about what they’re actually depicting.
Though she had her breakthrough in Columbia, O’Keeffe is well-known on the national stage. It would be easy to become familiar with her work without ever realizing her connection to South Carolina. That she’s a notable, beautiful artist in her own right, though, makes it all the more pride-worthy that she has a connection to our city, and gives all the more reason not to miss this exhibit a full century after her time here. “Georgia O’Keeffe: Her Carolina Story” will be at the Columbia Museum of Art until Jan. 10.