Update: The bronze of Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1946 sculpture, Abstraction, sold for $668,000–more than double its high estimate.
What you see: Abstraction, a sculpture modeled in 1946 by Georgia O’Keeffe and cast in bronze between 1979 and 1980. It’s the third from an edition of ten. Sotheby’s estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.
The expert: Charlotte Mitchell, specialist at Sotheby’s.
Who was Georgia O’Keeffe? She was one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, and a pioneer of modernism. She’s best known for her large canvases depicting enlarged flowers.
Do we know how this 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture came about? O’Keeffe first modeled Abstraction in clay in 1946 at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiú, New Mexico. It demonstrates her interest in organic forms and the natural world, and exemplifies a deeply personal synthesis of realism and abstraction that pervades her entire body of work.
The 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture is one of only three that she made. Did she do all three around the same time? She did three sculptural motifs in a seven-decade career–that’s a very long time. She revisited sculpture throughout her career, doing the first in 1916 and the last in 1982. This one was partly inspired by sculptor Mary Callery. [Callery was friendly with O’Keeffe, and sculpted an image of her in 1946.] She might have inspired her to try her hand at sculpture once again after a three-decade hiatus.
Do we know why O’Keeffe approached sculpture this way–doing one very early, leaving it alone for decades at a time, and then returning to the medium? It’s incredibly interesting, and important to note that she didn’t cast anything in bronze until 1979.
All three of her sculptures, or just this one? She did cast all three in bronze.
Did she leave any letters or comments behind that give insight into why she had such an on-and-off relationship with sculpture? Nothing I’ve found, no.
What can we tell, just by looking, how difficult this sculpture would have been to model? I imagine getting that loop to hang in space with no external support would have been a trick. I think it’s a bit difficult to assess, but you can tell it’s a delicate form that certainly required skill and a lot of attention.
This particular Georgia O’Keeffe structure takes a spiral form. Why is that significant? The spiral form appears throughout Georgia O’Keeffe’s body of work. She returns to the shape time and time again, depicting it in many media. The curvilinear lines you see and the powerful simplified shape reflects her interpretation of the natural world.
Is the spiral shape in this Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture drawn from her imagination, or is it based on something specific, such as a Nautilus shell? It’s hard to pinpoint what aspect of nature she took it from. I can’t pinpoint if it’s a shell or a bone or anything like that.
How does this 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture compare to the other Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture in the sale, which has the same title and was modeled in 1916? It was her first attempt at sculpture, but both weren’t cast until 1979 and 1980. It’s interesting to see them side by side. The 1916 Abstraction is more vertical. She made it after her mother died, and it could serve as a memento mori. It reflects how, quite early in her career, while she was still a student, she was finding her own voice and vision.
Do we know whose idea it was to cast the three Georgia O’Keeffe sculptures in bronze? And how involved would she have been in the casting? She would have been elderly in 1979 and 1980. She would have overseen the casting of all her bronzes. Around the same time, she also produced pottery. There are several examples in the sale.
Is the 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture solid or hollow? It’s solid.
Does the maquette–the 1946 model for the later-cast bronze–survive? Not to our knowledge.
This is the third in an edition of ten. Do we know where the other nine are? According to our information, seven are in the collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation in Abiquiú. Two are in private collections.
Hard to get, then. Yes, it’s incredibly rare. It was produced in three sizes: the ten-inch, the 36-inch, of which there are seven, and an 118-inch, the only one on that scale. [It’s outside the Georgia O’Keeffe Research Center. As of February 2020, it’s the fourth image that floats past in sequence on the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum website.]
Is this the first time that a 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture has gone to auction? A 36-inch version sold for north of $1 million in November 2014 at Christie’s. It’s the only other example to come up at auction.
What is the Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture like in person? It’s incredibly delicate and detailed, but incredibly simple. It’s meant to be viewed in the round. It’s hard to capture in images. Something that doesn’t come across in the images is the smooth texture of the surface. It’s incredibly smooth and delicate.
Her choosing to give the bronze a bone white color is intriguing. Exactly. It certainly parallels her lifelong interest in bones, which she collected while living in New Mexico.
Who was Juan Hamilton, the person to whom she gave this bronze? He served as a very close friend and confidante of Georgia O’Keeffe. He first knew her in New Mexico, and they became lifelong friends.
How does the Juan Hamilton provenance add to the value of the Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture? It’s definitely rare to encounter a collection with a provenance like this, passing from Georgia O’Keeffe to the owner. It’s hard to put a value figure on that. I think clients will definitely value works from a private collection that has never been on the market. Hamilton inherited the sculpture directly from the artist. It’s a rare narrative that you don’t encounter often.
The 1916 Georgia O’Keeffe sculpture has a lower estimate than this one. Why? The spiral form is pervasive through her work, and a very uniquely O’Keeffe subject. I don’t want to belittle the other by comparing them because they’re distinctly different and from different periods of her career.
The 36-inch Georgia O’Keeffe bronze that sold in 2014 set the de facto record, because it was the first of any edition of the 1946 Abstraction to go to auction. What are the odds that this 10-inch version, with its tantalizing provenance, might meet or beat that record? It’s always hard to predict how a sale will go. We’re hoping for strong competition and to see a strong result.
How to bid: The 1946 Georgia O’Keeffe Abstraction sculpture is lot 54 in Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Juan Hamilton: Passage, which takes place at Sotheby’s New York on March 5, 2020.
Images are courtesy of Sotheby’s.
Charlotte Mitchell appeared on The Hot Bid previously to discuss a Paul Manship sculpture.
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