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An O'Keeffe I Hardly Knew

A flower is never just a flower. I suppose that's true once it's manipulated through a camera or, in Georgia O'Keeffe's case, paint. No matter how profusely she denied it, the sexual connection in O'Keeffe's work dogged and frustrated her from her very first exhibit in 1917 at Alfred Stieglitz's gallery, 291. To me her work often has a sensuousness about it, throughout her long career.

But clearly from around 1916 through the 30s, as the new exhibit Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction at the Whitney Museum proves, the young O'Keeffe is at her most provocative and challenging best. Long before she became known as the high priestess of a Southwestern kitsch, she was among the first American artists to embrace a pure abstraction that in her words, "is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint."

O'Keeffe forged a rare independence in a very conservative turn-of-the-century America, where abstraction and feminism (she was way ahead) could brand you a communist or at least un-American -- sound familiar? In a now legendary art world relationship with Stieglitz, he would take control of promoting O'Keeffe's image and exhibiting her work and she would be his muse. A darkened gallery of his nude photographs of her is part of the exhibit -- she was quite an attractive woman, hairy armpits and all.

To avoid what critics of her 1917 show called "portraits of female sexual experience," she shifted focus for her next exhibit in 1924, saying, "my work this year is very much on the ground. I suppose the reason I got down to an effort to be objective is that I didn't like the interpretation of my other things."

Abstraction, however, would remain the foundation of her life's work, but all the large scale sun-bleached skulls and adobe architecture to follow can't compare with the stunning -- yes, sensuous -- ground-breaking early charcoals, watercolors, and paintings of her early years. I was blown away by the power of her simple charcoal drawings, the washy, bleeding watercolors, and her brilliant thinly layered paint. She was laying down paint in colors and hues never before seen, which would influence many of the men who followed her lead like Dove, Rothko, Avery, Marsden Hartley, and many more -- she was an American original.

This exhibit moves to the Phillips Collection on February 6, 2010.


Anonymous said...

It's on my calendar when it moves to the Phillips, but you owe Ms. O'Keefe more, Mark, than just "quite an attractive woman." She was sublimely beautiful, more so perhaps as she aged. Her later floral works, well, see one and you've seen 'em all, and I found myself staring more at the portraits of the artist than the orchids in the O'Keefe museum. The Stieglitz portraits - especially the hands - are incredible. I always thought she was a better model than an artist. Maybe next year I'll change my mind.
- Ron Pilling

mike cordes said...

An insightful and very well written piece. A lesson in doing what you love and letting the rest of the world figure it out (as long as you don't starve in the process).

Mark Barry said...

Ron, she was a beauty and amazingly far ahead of her time, hip before hip (by about 40 years). The relationship with Stieglitz was full of surprises too, very open, progressive.

So right Mike, do what you love, it's not a rehearsal.