Georgia O’Keeffe was preoccupied by painting apples in the early 1920s. She painted red and green apples on plates, tables, and fields of color. While some of these images study the undulating forms of many apples side-by-side, in The Green Apple (1922), the composition is reduced to a single, smooth piece of fruit on a plate. Here, O’Keeffe abstracts familiar objects, revealing their meaning by exploring their forms.
Purely abstract charcoal drawings were the focus of O’Keeffe’s first show at a New York City art gallery in 1916. After moving to the city in 1918, she increasingly found vehicles for formal exploration in her daily life. Apples were plentiful in early fall in Lake George, New York, where O’Keeffe spent time with photographers Alfred Stieglitz and Paul Strand. Seeing New York’s rural bounty framed through their lenses, she began painting streamlined apple compositions.
The Green Apple is the result of five years of devoted exploration of the formal properties of fruit. It is deceptively simple: green apple, black plate, and white background, yet it is a thoroughly modern image. Its sleek lines and limited palette bring O’Keeffe’s rural New York subject—considered the classic American fruit—into the visual language of modern art. Her composition provides us with no spatial reference. We want to assume the black plate sits on a surface, but it also appears to be tilted at a steep angle. No clues in the unmodulated white surrounding the plate suggest a table. O’Keeffe wrote that she “found that [she] could say things with color and shapes that [she] couldn’t say in any other way.” In The Green Apple, she again expressed the essence of American modernism.