Georgia O’Keeffe "Evening Star IV" Watercolor. 1917

A Woman with a Past: Georgia O’Keeffe and Abstraction

The Whitney Museum opens Georgia OKeeffe: Abstraction, a new look at the artists abstract works. Works include photographs of the artist such as “Hands, Georgia OKeeffe” (1918) by Alfred Stieglitz. Lifetime TV premiered the OKeeffe biopic September 18. I cant help but find this an interesting coincidence. September 18, the same day that Huffington Post led its living page with a story about the declining happiness of women (Part 1 of  more parts to come, according to Arianna), the capital A art story that has again put starry skied west Texas and New Mexico into the national beam hinges on yesterdays opening of Georgia OKeeffe: Abstraction at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Running from now into January the show includes 130 works, most by the artist, along with some of the vaunted erotic photographs of OKeeffe by her lover, Alfred Stieglitz.

Tomorrow, September 19th, on Lifetime Channel, the OKeeffe biopic (produced and shot in New Mex by Sony Pictures TV) starring Joan Allen as OKeeffe and Jeremy Irons as Stieglitz, premieres.

Hence we have the affair-to-remember redux lined up in the sights of falls blockbuster season. Not having seen the Whitney show yet, or the biopic, I cant opine as to what is the message board of this again-revamped story. Nor can I offer insight into how the OKeeffe headlines bear on this newly promoted issue of womens signal unhappiness.  But it is my hunch, stress hunch,  that the phenomenon of comparison that women culturally fall prey to (“am I as good an artist as -,” “is my love affair as hot as -“?) gets ramped up by mainstream suggestion of how great it was, say, back in 1916 (when Stieglitz and OKeeffe met), to be a woman with a future. And this leads me to wonder how OKeeffe, a fixed symbol of  a famous woman, who was a creative Circe during her long life, manifests more than an object lesson – an opportunity?

What I do know, after more than 17 years covering OKeeffe, representation, abstraction, and issues including the fake Canyon Suite watercolors (for which I reported a 25,000 word story in 2000 that won an AP investigative journalism prize); is that the national hunger for the Woman Artist-as-industry shows no sign of waning. (There are admittedly very few. Add Frida Kahlo, Madonna, Martha Graham, and you have a preliminary list.)

Still, it bears calling out that this artist, who got analyzed representationally even for the content of her early abstractions, so actively resented the proclivity of critical opinion to assign vaginas to velvety paint strokes, and penises to Jack in the Pulpit flower pistils, that she changed her work in response. This indeed was the central  point OKeeffe Museum curator Barbara Buhler Lynes made in her essay, later book, “OKeeffe and the Critics.”

Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, along with OKeeffe curator Lynes, Bruce Robertson of UC Santa Barbara and Elizabeth Hutton Turner of the University of Virginia and Phillips collection, all collaborated on this Whitney show. (I hope to interview Lynes in the next few weeks, as I have long been interested in her analysis of “OKeeffe and  the Critics,” and how her thesis bears on this exhibit.) Whitney Senior Curatorial Assistant Sasha Nicholas spent two years at Yales Beinecke Library studying the Stieglitz OKeeffe letters unsealed in 2006, of which a selection is printed in the catalog. Sasha Nicholas told Huff Pos Culture Zohn that OKeeffes Jack in the Pulpit series, “enact a case study in abstraction.”

OKeeffe who died in New Mexico in 1986, met Alfred Stieglitz when she was teaching and making abstract charcoal drawings and watercolors in Amarillo, Texas, in 1916. That part of Texas is canyon country. OKeeffe, watching such phenomena as “Evening star” and “Sunrise,” turned small, intimate paper into planar, expansive and ineffable explorations of landscape-abstraction.

Eric Hawkins as El Flagellante in Barbara Morgans El Penitente

Eric Hawkins as El Flagellante in Barbara Morgan's El Penitente 1940

Other female OKeeffe scholars including Sharyn Udall of Santa Fe have tried situating OKeeffe in a larger feminine and feminist milieu that tosses into the artist mix Emily Carr, of Canada, and of course, Frida Kahlo, of Mexico. Such transcendentalists as Agnes Pelton and Florence Pierce, much lesser known even than Emily Carr, add to the picture of women riffing off what might have started, in representational terms as a landscape, a sunset, a flower, and vectoring out rays by which a combined Kandinsky music-art essence, and dance-visual kinesthesia could be interpreted.

So when people cite abstract OKeeffe, and subsequently choreographer-dancer Graham, it bears recall that for both, New Mexico was an austere setting in which to track bodies against grounds. Graham,  who collaborated with Isamu Noguchi on sets (Noguchis half-sister was a Graham dancer, and a Santa Fe resident, who introduced them), produced out of her fascination with El Norte works such as Il Penitente, in which the rope symbolized male self-flagellation as part of a code of ecstatic Catholic ritual conducted during the Holy days before Easter.

Beyond, in other words, far beyond simplistic evocations of love affairs, broken hearts and muses-manques, enters a possibly new view of how OKeeffe, along with compatriots, manifested petal-shredding feminists who had nothing against flowers. Indeed, as OKeeffe said, to really see a flower was like really having a friend ( it requires you to pay very close attention, in her analysis). She only (deeply) minded a collision of flower and female anatomy that represented pure reductivism. Lets hold that standard up to the biopic and see how it does.

I would also briefly post to this article mention of 2 other women artists,  Ana Mendieta (deceased), and May Stevens, a now 85-year-old painter, in Santa Fe, whose portraits of Rosa Luxembourg manifested a form of literary-paint-philosophy. As I start to think I would also add someone whose work is somewhat new to me, Clytie Alexander, a painter whose brand of illusionistic spaces comes out of light-and-space, and  a fascination with physical lightness that one could track back loosely to OKeeffe and to Pelton.

Clytie Alexander "Diaphan 18 Blue/ Ultramarine"

Clytie Alexander "Diaphan 18 Blue/ Ultramarine" 34 x 35 inches, 2007 Courtesy of Betty Cuningham Gallery

As to who helped make this Whitney exhibition possible? A look at the museums Web page shows that the exhibit borrows liberally from Anne Burnett- Tandy holdings (also known as Anne Marion), out of Ft. Worth, of early OKeeffes. I wonder if the current state of research into dissatisfied women has  assessed if women-headed charitable foundations like Burnett-Tandy also find that group, like women cited in the Huff Po study, dissatisfied, after midlife, with their possessions?

To that point, its no small matter either how reified OKeeffes own possessions, from shells to bones to clay pots, have been since her death. If you visit her  house in Abiquiu, the Mason jars including the sarsparilla for her tea still rattle with the last dry leaves the artists own hands picked from her garden. That is, they would rattle if you could touch them. But they are enshrined, still, in place.

Perhaps as we strive to find in OKeeffe a reason why women have so much potential to celebrate, we can also look candidly at the ways she also found many reasons, in her life, to be dissatisfied and to want more. That she also got more is perhaps the best object lesson of all.

Top photo: Georgia OKeeffe, ” Evening Star IV”  Watercolor. 1917
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