When you hear the name O’Keeffe, who pops into your mind?
Probably Georgia. Her sensual, pastel-colored flowers and stark but soft desert landscape paintings are iconic.
But there was more than one driven, talented artist in the O’Keeffe family. An exhibit on view at the Clark Art Institute, “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow,” explores the lesser-known artist in the family.
In the museum’s lobby, Clark visitors Dick Diamond and his wife pondered the sign promoting the show. They’re huge fans of Georgia and recalled their trip to New Mexico.
“I mean, we went through all the O’Keeffe stuff — her home and so on,” he said, “and I don’t remember reading about her sister there.”
Marvin Cooper stopped and recalled reading something somewhere about Ida. “It was totally a shock that she existed,” he admitted.
Curator Sue Canterbury was flabbergasted, too, when she first learned Georgia’s sister was an artist. She recalled thinking, “Why haven’t we ever heard of her?”
That was back in 2013. She remembers looking across a room in an art collector’s house at a blue, white, gray and black geometric painting of the Highland Light, an historic lighthouse in North Truro on Cape Cod.
“I was puzzled by it — I was trying to figure out who was by — I just had to know,” Canterbury said.
The owner told her it was by Ida O’Keeffe, and that set the curator off on a quest to uncover the story of a forgotten artist. She compares it to resurrecting the dead. It took some serious curatorial sleuthing to build the exhibition.
The art and information Canterbury amassed debuted last year at the Dallas Museum of Art where she works. She recently traveled to Williamstown to see how the show looks now that it’s up at the Clark.
It begins with a wall of black-and-white snapshots. They were taken by pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz in the 1920s.
The siblings spent extended time together at Stieglitz’s retreat in Lake George, New York known as The Hill. According to Canterbury’s research, the trio enjoyed each other’s company. They frolicked outdoors, made art and shared meals. In one of Stieglitz’s photos, Georgia and Ida playfully mug for his camera. The sisters look happy, even Georgia.
“That’s not the imperious Georgia that one recalls,” Canterbury observed, “you know cool and calm and severe looking.”
Stieglitz would marry Georgia a few months after the photo was taken, but Canterbury said he flirted relentlessly with Ida in the fall of 1924 — which Georgia apparently laughed off.
Then the curator pointed to a photo with a very different vibe.
“Georgia is staring straight down the barrel of Stieglitz’s lens. Very hard looking,” Canterbury described. “And Ida next to her is just looking to the side — and looks a little bit unsure — and almost like the perfect symbol of what the relationship would become.”
Growing up, Ida and Georgia took art lessons with the same teachers. The older O’Keeffe studied painting with Charles Martin at Columbia University Teachers College from 1914-15. Her younger sister would follow more than a decade later, after her stint as a gynecological nurse. In 1931 Martin took Ida and his students to Provincetown for the summer, when she discovered her enduring muse, the Highland Light.
Jump to 1933 when Ida and another O’Keeffe sister named Catherine wanted to exhibit their work in New York City. Canterbury said Georgia — who’d already risen as a celebrity — was livid. She warned them that they better not go through with the exhibit.
“She was rather vicious in her letter — and Catherine gave up painting all together,” Canterbury said. But Ida refused to stop exhibiting. That did not sit well with her older sister.
“Even though they’d been close,” the curator went on, “they became absolutely estranged after that.”
Canterbury believes Georgia felt threatened, and likely thought her sister would ride on the coattails of her fame. The curator said some people have said the same about Georgia piggybacking on her husband’s influence and connections.
“He helped guide her,” Canterbury said of Stieglitz. “He gave her the space and the time to create her art — and then he introduced her to the right critics and the collectors — helping to increase the value of her art, to develop her brand into becoming the mother of American Modernism.”
In contrast, Canterbury said Ida ended up supporting herself as an arts educator.
“I wanted to find out what her course load was like,” the curator said. “How much time did this woman really have to work on her own art and to develop it? My suspicion was that she actually did not have that luxury.”
To build her exhibit, Canterbury plowed through the many biographies written about Georgia, searching for clues and leads about Ida. After getting the green light to organize the show at the Dallas Museum of Art, she held an event in 2014 asking the public for help through a crowdsourcing campaign.
She was surprised by how many people came out of the woodwork (and continue to do so) from around the country with letters, artwork and anecdotes related to Ida’s life and career.
A pivotal find came from a man from Tennessee. He called Canterbury and said, “You’re not going to believe this, but several years ago I bought a box containing professional files in her scrapbook.”
The curator said it was a goldmine, stuffed with information about all of Ida’s exhibitions, reviews of her art and articles written about her whenever she relocated to a new place for yet another faculty teaching job. She was itinerant, Canterbury learned, moving 13 times in 10 years, “From Virginia, down to Alabama, then up to Cortland, New York, and then back down South.”
The scrapbook is in the gallery, under glass, opened to a page with an article from San Antonio where Ida taught from 1938-39. The headline reads: “Artist Sister Joins Lady of the Lake Faculty.”
“Everywhere she went she was always introduced through the aura of her sister,” Canterbury said, “it was never having this chance to stand on her own.”
But Ida strove to distinguish herself. Sometimes she dropped the name O’Keeffe for exhibitions, and adopted a family name, Ten Eyck. She also experimented with her artistic voice throughout her life, exploring symmetry, abstract forms, and monotype prints, which helped her make money during the Depression.
Unlike her sister, Ida never married. And she never had a dealer or representation in a gallery.
“Women couldn’t get that unless you were under the wing of a man — like Stieglitz for instance. And so Georgia’s situation is one that is so exceptional, it was a situation that 99.99% of the other women artists didn’t get.”
This concept was not lost on Ida. At one point she expressed, “Well I’d be famous, too, if I had a Stieglitz.”
Ida continued to exhibit throughout her life. Canterbury said she was always particularly proud of her lighthouse series from the Cape.
“What you get from these lighthouse in particular — in terms of their complexity and their power — is that if she could have stepped away from that and into the guidance of a really good dealer I really think we would be telling a different story.”
Ida spent the last 19 years of her life in Whittier, California. The sisters never did reconcile before Ida died in 1961.
Now Canterbury hopes people who visit the exhibition will walk away thinking about all the unsung women artists out there — and about how many are ripe for rediscovery.
“Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow” is on view at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown through Oct. 6.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.