The Profound Charcoal Art of Georgia O'Keeffe

For over 80 years, one artist has risen above many of the rest. A trailblazer, Georgia O’Keeffe has over 500 examples of her work displayed in North and Central America, Asia, and Europe.

O’Keeffe's first exhibition was small and humble - held privately in her room at age 28. Her extremely abstract work was mostly charcoal on white paper. She passed along her work to a friend in New York, who in turn showed them to noted photographer Alfred Stieglitz. He was quick to exclaim, "At last, a woman on paper!"

Since she began exhibiting work in New York in 1916, she has been a part of hundreds of exhibitions world-wide. Surprisingly, given the reach of her work, upon her death in 1986 she actually owned more than a half of her total known works. She kept works that defined her, that meant something to her, and that stand the test of time as testament to both her creativity and her achievements.

Though she is exceptionally well known for watercolor and oil, she began working with predominantly charcoal mediums. Once she arrived in New York, in the time frame between about 1918 and 1923, she was working mostly in oil. During this period she created some of the most breathtaking abstractions in her career.


But how did she go from a Wisconsin town to one of the most easily recognized and most distinguished artists of our time? From about 1911 until about 1918, she worked as an art teacher. She worked in various schools from elementary to college level. It was during this time that she created some of her most exemplary abstracts in basic charcoal on white. These works have stood the test of time as dramatic, complex pieces and have not at all been out-shined by her later preference to oil.

As you can see in Drawing XIII (right), she displays a remarkable independence from those staunch lines of tradition and training. Bold, expressive strokes display movement and the grace of nature flowing through the entirety of the sheets. In this work in particular, she displays the fluid movement of either water or fire, moving easily into a representation of a thick hillside forest. Completely to the left, we have dramatic lines that have been worked using an erasure method- a display, perhaps of the power of lightning or the majesty of a mountain range. This masterful early work is deeply emotional and moving, bringing together the elements of nature in an abstract that is simply breath-taking.

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