June 18, 2008 — Georgia O'Keeffe's decision to attend the University of Virginia in the summer of 1912 to become an art teacher marked an important time for the artist, according to Elizabeth Turner, University Professor in the McIntire Department of Art.
During her time at U.Va. O'Keeffe was introduced to "The Book of Composition: Understanding Line, Notan and Color" and "Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers" by Arthur Wesley Dow. She learned to develop a sense of space in her artwork through Dow's revolutionary idea that the elements of color, dark and light, line and balance — and not the practice of copying nature — were at the heart of art. Through his writings she also embraced the idea that everyone is endowed with an aesthetic sensibility that is empowering.
"It was a seminal time for O'Keeffe," Turner said. From this experience, she developed her interest in and ideas about abstraction and the notion that paintings have what she referred to as an "affective and therapeutic power."
An expert on American modernist art, Turner will spend a large part of the summer as one of five current research fellows at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum and Research Center in Santa Fe, N.M., researching and writing about O'Keeffe. Immersed in the surroundings that inspired O'Keeffe — the landscape, her studio and home — Turner will write two essay contributions for catalogs to accompany exhibits she is co-curating at the Whitney Museum in New York and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Both exhibits are expected to open in fall 2009.
"Tapping the Power," her essay for the Whitney's "O'Keeffe: Abstraction" exhibit catalog, will focus on O'Keeffe's use of abstraction, early symbolism and her belief that paintings had the power to heal.
In her early work and again in the later paintings, O'Keeffe embraces a "free-formed idea about abstraction and communication between artist and viewer," Turner said. "That dialogue was originally meant to be open-ended."
This essay will draw heavily upon the recently released correspondence between O'Keeffe and photographer and New York gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924. In 1910, O'Keeffe sent Stieglitz her early abstractions and asked him what they meant to him. It was the beginning of her exploration into the "affective power of abstraction." O'Keeffe wanted to know if her abstraction had the power to communicate, Turner said.
Access to the dialogue between the two artists through their correspondence sheds new light on O'Keeffe's work. "O'Keeffe: Abstraction" is the first major O'Keeffe exhibit prepared with access to that information, Turner said.
The second essay, "The Geography of Time," will accompany the Montreal Museum of Fine Art's "American Landscape" exhibit. It will compare the landscapes of O'Keeffe, Arthur Dove and their contemporaries at the dawn of 20th century American landscape painting.
Turner, who was a senior curator for almost 20 years at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., has spent most of her curatorial career immersed in the works of The Stieglitz Circle, the young modernist artists that Stieglitz represented at his 291 Gallery in New York. The Stieglitz Circle artists "identified landscape with the self and the idea of personal identity in the landscape," Turner said.
Duncan Phillips was a patron of these artists and his collection became the nucleus of the Phillips Collection. During her time with the Phillips Collection, Turner curated exhibits and wrote extensively about the modernist artists, including Stieglitz, Dove, Stuart Davis, John Marin, Jacob Lawrence, Alexander Calder and O'Keeffe and their European contemporaries Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrain and Man Ray. Her curated exhibits include "Two Lives: Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Steiglitz," "In the American Grain: Dove, Hartley, Marin, O'Keeffe, and Stieglitz" and "Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things."
"Phillips was a seminal collector of the circle," Turner said. He was a faithful patron of Stieglitz's gallery and supported his theory that if you want to create an American culture, you need to support a living artist, Turner added. "Each artist had a unique contribution and developed a unique way of painting."
Another unique American artist is the topic of Turner's next writing project, a biography of Calder.
Turner's numerous talents as an educator, art historian, curator and administrator have been tapped since she returned to the University of Virginia last fall. Turner received her bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in art history from U.Va.
In December, U.Va. President John T. Casteen III named Turner the first provost for the arts and charged her with overseeing the University's programmatic and physical growth in the arts, an initiative that will make the arts central to University life. In that role, she oversees U.Va.'s plans for improved facilities, including a new art museum and a new music building.