A Long-Lost O’Keeffe Painting is Now on Exhibit in the Panhandle

The rare painting from the artist’s early days is on display in Canyon, a town where O’Keeffe once taught.

By Alexandra HartMay 30, 2016 3:19 pm

A century ago, a young Georgia O’Keeffe painted one of her earliest watercolor works, Red and Green II. It was on display only once, for a month in the late 1950s, before it vanished – assumed to be gone forever. O’Keeffe had ordered it to be destroyed.

Now, the rare painting has resurfaced. It’s going on display for the first time in nearly 60 years at the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, where O’Keeffe was an art teacher at West Texas A&M University from 1916 to 1918. The watercolor is part of an exhibit called “When Georgia Was Here,” commemorating the artist’s time in the Panhandle town.

Michael Grauer, a curator at the museum, says the watercolor painting, which is only about the size of a sheet of notebook paper, was from a crucial period in O’Keeffe’s life.

“It’s a part of that body of work that she did as she ventured into non-figurative and abstract painting,” Grauer says. “That helped her turn her corner really in her career, when she gets to Canyon and stays here almost two years.”

But like many artists, O’Keeffe wasn’t fond of her earlier works – Red and Green II included. So she wanted it out of her portfolio.

“The way I see it – and a lot of artists do this – is they’re trying to protect their legacy,” Grauer says. “Most artists working today really have no interest in their earlier work, and frequently they’ll edit their previous work in such a way that makes them, in their view, look better.”

The artist even indicated in her personal notebooks that the piece had been destroyed. But it turns out that a private collector in New York managed to recently get a hold of it – a collector that Grauer knew and had borrowed O’Keeffe works from previously. Now, it’s hanging in the Panhandle Plains Historical Museum, where it can be seen for the first time in decades.

“The best time for an art historian to show up is right after the artist signs the work or says it’s done, because we get it out of their hands before they start jacking around with it,” Grauer says. “In order to really look at the full body of work by an artist, we need those early works to compare with the later works that are far better known. So this is a real godsend.”