Georgia O'Keefee, "Sky Above Clouds IV", 1965

O’Keeffe: Abstraction, In Review

In 1938, Life Magazine called Georgia OKeeffe  “the worlds most famous woman artist.” Intended no doubt as a compliment, this anointment was a stigma that had already been with OKeeffe for 20 years, and would be with her for the rest of her life, and beyond.

OKeeffe would struggle with the accepted notions that her work was irrepressibly sexual, or that her flower paintings and desert landscapes were hopelessly pretty. Given the box office potential of Georgia OKeeffe in any form, these were accusations that dealers and museums found easy enough to shrug off. OKeeffes work is still bringing crowds to the galleries.

The current Whitney Museum exhibition, Georgia OKeeffe: Abstraction, which comes to the Georgia OKeeffe Museum in Santa Fe (May 28-Sept. 12, 2010) after its next stop at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC (Feb. 6 – May 9) aims to correct that conventional wisdom.

With 130 paintings and drawings on view, plus photographs, the Georgia OKeeffe in this exhibition is presented as a serious experimenter who defied expectations as she tried out curves, colors and geometries. Her shape of choice was often the multi-colored spiral, in colors that seem borrowed from Kandinsky or Chagall. Horizontal slabs seem to prefigure Rothko. White swirls often resemble clouds or draping.

Georgia OKeeffe "Untitled (Red Wave with Circle)" 1979

Georgia O'Keeffe "Untitled (Red Wave with Circle)" 1979

The curators argue that OKeeffes experimentation was a life-long mission. The evidence comes in pictures like Untitled (Red Wave with Circle) from 1979, in which OKeeffe could counter-pose a hook or crescent with a thick dot of red to evoke one of Joan Miros motifs, or a star and crescent (in blood red, no less), or the later calligraphic blots of Robert Motherwell. Curves and circles had been part of her vocabulary for decades, as seen in the dusky Abstraction with Curve and Circle 1915/16. No surprise, there are also the many-sided, closely-observed concave forms that look like her trademark blooming flowers. Lets not forget that the artist whom the curators hope to show anew is still the same artist.

Georgia OKeeffe "Jack in the Pulpit IV", 1930. National Gallery of Art.

Georgia O'Keeffe "Jack in the Pulpit IV", 1930. National Gallery of Art.

And thats just the point. Anyone who has visited the OKeeffe Museum in Santa Fe has had to see OKeeffes early abstract pictures both in charcoal, watercolor and graphite. For these experiments, fantasy works might be a better term. In Starlight Night of 1917 (watercolor and graphite on paper), snowflakes are an axial constellation of rough geometries. The heavens would be an inspiration for Sky Above the Clouds (1962-3), in the Whitney show, in which soft white forms are arranged toward infinity like airborne lily pads.

In the 1920s, OKeeffes abstraction evolves into a tactility that reminds you anything can be abstract, as long as you look at it from a close enough range. The effect feels like point-blank modernist photography, which may explain why the critic Clement Greenberg described the OKeeffe abstract works that he saw at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946 as “pseudo-modern,” noting that “the greatest part of her work adds up to little more than tinted photography….that has less to do with art than with private worship and the embellishment of private fetishes with secret and arbitrary meanings.”

With all due respect to Greenberg, in the post-1980 art museum industry OKeeffes private worship has never been more public. Greenbergs dismissal of OKeeffe, noted in an informative essay by the doyenne of OKeeffe scholarship, Barbara Buhler Lynes of the OKeeffe Museum,  could account for why critic Jerry Saltz praised the show in New York Magazine as if he were discovering Picasso. Saltzs multiple eurekas attest to the coup de foudre – love at first sight. Yet his belated announcement that OKeeffe is more than sex and flowers also indicates that he hadnt looked too hard for work thats been out there for anyone to see.  Better late than never. Also, to be fair, OKeeffes abstractions have never been shown in such numbers or concentration.

OKeeffe produced plenty of abstract pictures, but had her own conflicts about them. The early abstract work from 1917 through the 1920s that OKeeffes mentor/lover/manager Alfred Stieglitz presented came packaged with such a sexual sales pitch from Stieglitz (interspersed with nude photographs of OKeeffe) that the works could have been scarlet letters – albeit from the marketing department.

The abstract works did sell as OKeeffes reputation blossomed, yet OKeeffes flowers and landscapes sold better. By the time Abstract Expressionism took hold of the zeitgeist and the market, OKeeffes fame and fortune were coming from familiar images of the natural world.

OKeeffe painted until late in life. As with every OKeeffe exhibition, this show inevitably draws on the artists compelling century-long biography. In the late 1970s, when OKeeffes sight failed and she could barely hold a brush, an assistant dipped a brush in paint and handed it to the old woman. (The image comes from Barbara Buhler Lyness essay.) OKeeffe then swabbed simple forms on paper on an easel – curves, circles, horizontal slab shapes.

Were these abstractions a reflection of reduced powers at he age of 90, or was this a homecoming to forms that had been close to her since she began her own campaign to push at the boundaries of painting?

The code-like shapes were part of a vocabulary that had been with her for as long as she painted.  Yet abstraction wasnt the main path that OKeeffe took. Thats why the current exhibition has taken so many by surprise.

Top photo: Georgia OKeefee, “Sky Above Clouds IV”, 1965 Oil on canvas 243.8 x 731.5 cm Restricted gift of Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation; gift of Georgia OKeeffe.
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