The bitter and brilliant come together in “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow” at The Clark Art Institute.
We get a chronological look at Ida’s varied career—she did everything from still life painting to experimental landscapes and abstractions—and how it was hindered rather than helped by her family ties.
Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe was born in 1889 and was the younger sister of Georgia. Through photographs, taken by Georgia’s husband and a leading modern art purveyor of his time, Alfred Stieglitz, the exhibition gives viewers a glimpse into their lives and personalities.
In one, Ida and Georgia stand together, with Ida looking away from the camera and almost smiling and Georgia confronting the camera with her eyes and her attitude. The photo, taken in 1924, is placed next to another featuring the siblings laughing. Not too far away, another black and white photo shows Ida with her arms around a cake with tall candles at her 35th birthday celebration, which she spent at Alfred and Georgia’s Lake George home.
There were certainly family celebrations during that time, however, they came to a halting stop less than a decade later when Georgia demanded that Ida and her younger sister Catherine O’Keeffe Klenert abandon art and stop exhibiting their work. Klenert agreed to stop but not Ida.
For most of her life, Ida lived as a quintessential starving artist. She was trained as a teacher and a nurse who tried to break into the art world during the Great Depression. Throughout her life, she frequently had to move around for work, but she never gave up her artistic pursuits and was able to exhibit her work in New York City.
Some of her earliest works echo that of Georgia’s perhaps more in their subject than in their style.
Vivid yellow and red apples and bulbous pink floral decorations greet the viewer in one of Ida’s earliest still lifes from 1926. Just a room (and a few years) away, Ida’s perspective completely changes.
In her “Lighthouse Series,” she depicts the Highland Light at North Truro in Cape Cod, in a mix of abstract styles, with sharp and curved lines echoing the coastal landscape. She started the series in 1931, after enrolling in an advanced painting course on Cape Cod with Charles J. Martin. She stretched beyond the realist style she had previously pursued and delved into a more modernist aesthetic.
One of the first we see in the series is “Vacation on a Lighthouse Theme III.” Its name sounds joyous but its colors are brooding with black coating the foreground, mixed with blues and greys above. Nearby with “Theme IV,” things look a little brighter as she mixes curving shapes in yellow and green, depicting the light ribboning out of the lighthouse.
According to the exhibition’s wall text, Alfred Stieglitz was impressed with her artistic progress, though he didn’t go out of his way to support her career. Their relationship was also marked by several flirtatious letters that Stieglitz sent to Ida. There’s no evidence that she ever replied in kind.
Regardless, and well after her estrangement from Georgia, Ida continued to grow in her artistic abilities.
“Creation,” reveals her steady exploration of abstract art as sharp lines blend with curved shapes and vibrant colors that reflect the four elements. She also explored printmaking, including drypoint. In 1937, while participating in a summer fellowship at the University of Oregon, she depicted Agate Beach using a drypoint technique.
Her later works feature a blend of techniques seen in her “Lighthouse Series” and those seen in her more abstract pieces.
“Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow” is a long-overdue exhibition, which highlights an artist who never got the recognition she perhaps deserved in her lifetime.
The exhibition is organized by the Dallas Museum of Art and includes thirty-five works by Ida. It’s open through Oct. 14. For more info visit clarkart.edu.