In 2013 Sue Canterbury was visiting the home of a Dallas art collector when she noticed a striking painting. The small canvas depicted a lighthouse composed of dozens of swooping, abstract blue, black, and gray segments, fragmented as though viewed through a kaleidoscope. Canterbury, a curator at the Dallas Museum of Art, didn’t recognize the piece. “I kept puzzling over who it could be, and then I finally walked over to look and saw the signature: ‘Ida O’Keeffe.’ ”
Before that moment, Canterbury, like many in the art world, never knew that Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, a younger sister of the celebrated Modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe, was also an artist. Eclipsed by her brilliant sibling, Ida seemed destined for permanent obscurity until Canterbury, struck by the lighthouse painting, started researching the forgotten O’Keeffe. Years of dogged scholarly legwork have resulted in the DMA’s retrospective “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow,” which runs from November 18 to February 24. The exhibit includes 32 of Ida’s works—paintings, watercolors, prints, and drawings—most of which haven’t been seen in public since the thirties. “It’s been a very long process, and I know there are a lot of things missing,” says Canterbury, a veteran curator who worked at Massachusetts’s Clark Art Institute and the Minneapolis Institute of Art before moving to Dallas, in 2011. “A lot of things will come out of the woodwork once the exhibition opens.”
But Canterbury has already made great strides in preserving Ida’s legacy. She drew upon her research to produce the exhibition catalog, which includes biographical essays, critical analyses of Ida’s paintings, and full-color reproductions of all the works in the show. The book will likely be the cornerstone of all future research on Ida O’Keeffe, an art world enigma.
Ida was one of seven siblings born into a middle-class family in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. All five sisters received drawing lessons growing up, and three of them, Georgia, Ida, and Catherine, would go on to exhibit professionally. Georgia’s career skyrocketed after her work was introduced to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whose New York art gallery, 291, was the epicenter of American Modernism. With financial backing from Stieglitz, she quit her job teaching art at West Texas State Normal College (now West Texas A&M University), in Canyon, Texas, and moved to New York in 1918 to begin painting full-time.
But while Georgia pursued art with laser focus, Ida’s interests were more varied: she wrote short stories, studied Native American anthropology, and worked on and off as a nurse, earning her nursing degree from New York City’s Mount Sinai Hospital during World War I. Ida, who also taught drawing, began taking her own art more seriously when she discovered oil painting in the twenties, creating a series of still lifes and landscapes in a naturalistic style. Georgia and Stieglitz, who married in 1924, were struck by Ida’s creative vision, which she also expressed through flower arrangements. “Ida is truly an artist, too, if ever there was one,” Stieglitz wrote to journalist Paul Rosenfeld in 1924. “She has done things in that way which compare with Georgia’s best paintings—the same spirit—the same balanced sensibility—the amazing feel for color and texture.” In 1927 Georgia curated an exhibition at New York’s Opportunity Gallery that included five paintings by Ida, who exhibited under the name Ida Ten Eyck.
Ida was a frequent guest at Stieglitz’s summer home on Lake George, in upstate New York, spending long stretches living with her sister and brother-in-law. Photographs taken by Stieglitz, which are included in the exhibition, show Georgia and Ida mugging for the camera and dining together. In one, Ida poses with a squirrel she shot for dinner. But beneath this apparent idyll were darker currents. Stieglitz flirted with Ida in front of Georgia, and though she rebuffed him, he continued to pursue her in letters for years. “Stieglitz would have been crucified by the #MeToo generation,” Canterbury says. “He was really out of line quite a bit.”
Ignoring Stieglitz’s advances, Ida instead fell in love with Rosenfeld, the journalist and friend of Stieglitz’s and a regular visitor at Lake George. They got engaged, but Stieglitz, who knew about Rosenfeld’s womanizing, contrived (likely with Georgia) to break up the relationship. Heartbroken, Ida recommitted herself to art, enrolling at the Teachers College of Columbia University in 1929, where she studied with Georgia’s former instructor Charles James Martin. Ida began experimenting with a new, more abstract painting style and learned how to make monotype prints.
In 1933, just as Ida was beginning to exhibit her work in New York galleries, Georgia’s life seemed to be unraveling. After withdrawing from a high-profile commission to paint a mural at the new Radio City Music Hall, Georgia checked herself into a hospital to be treated for psychoneurosis. While there, she learned that her sisters Ida and Catherine would both be presenting solo exhibitions at New York’s Delphic Studios later that year. The New York Times predicted that these shows would make “O’Keeffe a family name instead of an individual name in the New York galleries.”
That was the last thing the fiercely independent Georgia wanted, and she insisted that both sisters stop exhibiting their work. A stunned Catherine acquiesced, but Ida refused to give up her artistic endeavors. Georgia never forgave Ida. When, career triumphantly revived, Georgia later took up residence in New Mexico, Ida was the only sibling she never invited to visit.
Estranged from her eldest sister, Ida began an itinerant existence that took her across the country from one temporary teaching appointment to the next, supplementing her modest income along the way with occasional nursing work. She spent 1938 and 1939 in San Antonio, leading the art department at Our Lady of the Lake College (now University). Ida threw herself into the artistic life of the Alamo City, exhibiting her monotypes, etchings, and drypoints at the Witte Museum and giving public lectures. She also created several paintings, including Star Gazing in Texas, which depicts a woman staring rapturously into the wide Texas sky against a bucolic background of horses and farmland.
Unlike Georgia, Ida never developed a signature artistic style. Her naturalistic still lifes of the twenties gave way to daringly abstract lighthouse paintings of the early thirties, then shifted abruptly into the Thomas Hart Benton–influenced American Regionalism of Star Gazing in Texas. Critics found it hard to evaluate such a disjunctive oeuvre, and after Ida moved to California in the early forties to create wartime technical drawings for Douglas Aircraft, she never exhibited in New York again. She spent her final two decades in Southern California, helping lead the Whittier Art Association and exhibiting her work locally. Ida died after suffering a stroke in 1961, at the age of 71, with most of her paintings still in her possession. “In some odd way, it is a wasted life,” Georgia wrote her sister Claudia shortly before Ida’s death.
All in the Family
Georgia claimed that Anita, another O’Keeffe sister, was the real painting talent of the family. But Anita was timid about sharing her work.
Until the opening of the new retrospective, Georgia’s assessment seemed accurate—at least in the context of her sister’s artistic career. “This isn’t the type of exhibition where a curator can pull out multiple catalogs and say, ‘I want this, this, and this,’ ” Canterbury explains, standing beside a row of Ida’s paintings in the DMA’s airy conservation studio, where they are being prepared for display. Among the works in the show is the lighthouse painting that started it all, part of a series of seven that Ida completed in 1931 and 1932. Six are included in the exhibition. (Canterbury was unable to track down the first.)
In 2014 the Times’s antiques writer Eve Kahn mentioned in her weekly column that Canterbury was looking for people with knowledge about Ida O’Keeffe. Art enthusiasts came forward with not only information but also paintings and artifacts they had in their private collections. One man had purchased a box of Ida’s papers, including a large scrapbook filled with reviews of her shows. To fill in the details of Ida’s life, Canterbury visited archives across the country, most notably Yale’s Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe collection.
Visitors to the exhibition will likely come away with an appreciation of Ida’s artistic skill and versatility, but some may be left with a lingering question: Would a museum be mounting such a retrospective if the artist weren’t the younger sister of Georgia O’Keeffe? O’Keeffe biographer Roxana Robinson argues, for instance, that Ida never approached painting with the radical spirit of her older sister. “When you’re considering artists, you’re considering not only the work they’re creating and the technical and aesthetic accomplishments, you’re also considering the ideas they’re presenting to the world,” Robinson said. “[Georgia] O’Keeffe was really a trailblazer, and Ida’s work, which I admire, doesn’t seem to offer the same originality.”
But Georgia’s situation was also unusual. Canterbury notes that Ida sometimes said, “If I had a Stieglitz, I’d be famous too.” For her part, Canterbury sees Ida’s career as representative of the challenges facing women artists then and now. “I can look at Ida and say she had the talent but she didn’t have the time and support . . . What if she had a sharp dealer who had supported and promoted her? The ‘if’ worked out for Georgia. There were no saviors for Ida.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “Discovering Ida.” Subscribe today.