IN a museum roomful of paintings by various 20th-century artists, those by Georgia O'Keeffe will be among the most immediately recognized. O'Keeffe painted long series of the subjects that interested her: huge magnified flowers; bare, unpopulated hills; desert-bleached bones. She simplified her subjects without losing their specific presence. Her colors are clear with continuously smooth shadings of tone, and the edges are well defined. This style remains consistent in all her themes and throughout her long career. She was, however, an early abstractionist. These ``Small Purple Hills'' are not painted purple but rather in varying shades of maroon. Doubtless, on twilight occasions they could appear a true purple, as desert hills often do.
Over the top of the main prominence and following the crests leftward the color is darkly rich, almost black. The ridges that stream down left and right lighten into a pinkish shade. Just below the dark cap is a band of bluish green which one supposes is vegetation, and there are some few other greenish gray swaths along the ridges. The hill is so overpoweringly present that one hardly notices the vivid blue, slightly modulated sky.
In 1915, O'Keeffe sent a friend some of her nonrepresentational charcoal drawings in which she used biomorphic forms to express the abstract beauty and power of music.
The friend showed them to Alfred Stieglitz, the well-known photographer and avant-garde gallery entrepreneur.
He admired the drawings immediately, saying, ``Why, they're genuinely fine things. ... She's an unusual woman. ... Tell her they're the purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while.'' The story is that he then exhibited them before he had O'Keeffe's permission, which annoyed her greatly. After correspondence between New York and Texas, where she was teaching art, and their meeting in New York City, he left his wife and later married her. O'Keeffe, an early feminist, disliked being called ``Mrs. Stieglitz.''
Born on a Wisconsin dairy farm into a family prosperous enough and cultured enough to give her art lessons when she was 11 years old, she determined - at age 12 - to become an artist.
She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago, the New York Art Students League, and under various well-known artists. But it was the design theories of Arthur Wesley Dow, communicated to her by one of his pupils, encouraging students to invent their own forms, express their own feelings, and fill the canvas space in a beautiful way, which influenced her future style the most.
Dow, in turn, had been impressed by the Oriental concepts of patterning, simplification, and harmony.
The desert landscapes of the Southwest fulfilled for her those principles. Her love for this severe, arid beauty was kindled in West Texas, which she left to join Stieglitz. But he was a New Yorker who divided his year between the city and a family summer place on Lake George. He had no interest in the West. O'Keeffe painted some effective scenes of skyscrapers from their 30th-floor hotel apartment window, but she was not entirely happy in the East.
IT was here that she introduced her enlarged, simplified paintings of flowers so intimate that they might be considered close-up portraits. She probably missed the immediate presence of nature in the city. She wrote, ``I'll paint what I see - what the flower means to me, but I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it - I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.''
Eventually, after a trip to New Mexico with a friend, she realized that the desert was where she most wanted to be.
At first, she spent her summers there, and later, when her husband, who was 25 years her senior passed on, she moved out there, away from New York permanently. She again painted what she saw - what the hills meant to her.
These are sparse, rugged, unpopulated, but splendid in form and color. One set of hills reminded her of ``a mile of elephants.'' Her home and studio looked out on views all around of these mountains, mesas, and hills. She rambled through them, studied them, painted endless series of them. There, she was also able to recall her farm childhood, with an orchard and a kitchen garden. Guests were treated to freshly baked bread from freshly ground flour, homemade yogurt, and freshly picked fruits, vegetables, and herbs.
In one of her first letters to Stieglitz from West Texas, she had written, ``The plains - the wonderful great big sky - makes me want to breathe so deep that I'll break - there is so much of it - I want to get outside of it all - I would if I could.''
Later, after years of daily acquaintance gazing at, hiking over, and painting a favorite New Mexican mountain, she humorously remarked, ``God told me if I painted that mountain enough, he'd give it to me.'' In a symbolic sense, the mountain and hills around the village of Abiquiu did become hers.
Nineteen eighty-seven marked the centennial of her birth. A selective and expository exhibition opened at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., in celebration of O'Keeffe, and will run until Feb. 21. The exhibition then travels to the Art Institute of Chicago, to the Dallas Museum of Art, and the Metropolitan in New York.