Anna McNay

Review of Georgia O’Keeffe: Memories of Drawings at Broadway Gallery, Letchworth


Georgia O’Keeffe: Memories of Drawings

Broadway Gallery, Letchworth Garden City
15 June – 23 July 2023


I realised that I had things in my head not like what I had been taught – not like what I had seen – shapes and ideas so familiar to me that it hadn’t occurred to me to put them down. I decided to stop painting, to put away everything I had done, and to start to say things that were my own.


It was during the early 1910s that the as-yet-not-well-known artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) began to question what she was doing, what she had been taught, and how perhaps she needed to put all that aside and start afresh in order to be true to and to make something of herself. She decided to focus on the formal elements of a picture – its lines, shapes and tonal values, and to restrict herself to working in black and white until she felt colour to be absolutely necessary. She began to produce a series of mainly abstract charcoal drawings, some of which she would later refer back to as “Specials”, highlighting their significance to her. In career terms, these drawings were not inconsequential, since it was these that caught the eye of the photographer and gallerist – and O’Keeffe’s future husband – Alfred Stieglitz, as well as that of the wider public, when he went on to exhibit them at his gallery in New York in 1916.

The 21 photogravures (etchings with the tone and detail of a photograph through exposure on to a copper plate) of drawings in this Hayward Gallery touring exhibition make up a selection (comprising, in the original, 17 charcoal – nine of which were in the 1916 exhibition – and two pencil drawings, one watercolour and one oil) made by O’Keeffe, together with her agent and close friend Doris Bry, to represent the range of her work in this medium between 1915 and 1963, for publication as two large-format portfolios in 1968. Keen to then enable wider circulation, they went on to publish a limited-edition book of the plates in 1974, which was “moderately priced but very well printed”. The drawings were accompanied by texts written by O’Keeffe. This, in turn, was reprinted posthumously, with added biographical notes, intended, Bry states in the blurb, as “a tribute to O’Keeffe’s drawings, an appreciation of her use of the written word, and a proof that a beautifully designed and printed book can be made available to a wide public at an affordable cost”. In the exhibition, the prints are accompanied by summaries of O’Keeffe’s texts. (I would nevertheless recommend finding a copy of the book to read these in full, and I am not sure why they were abridged for the display, since most of them are pithy and succinct.) Not only are the works gems in their own right, but, with the pivotal role they played in making the artist we know today, and the disgraceful fact that there is not one single work by O’Keeffe in any UK public collection, this is an exhibition not to be missed.


Read the full review here