Georgia O’Keefe at The Whitney Museum of American Art

Georgia O’Keeffe, Untitled (Abstraction/Portrait of Paul Strand), 1917. Watercolor on paper, 12 × 8 7/8 in. (30.5 × 22.5 cm). Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico; gift of The Burnett Foundation. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New YorkGeorgia O’Keefe, Untitled (Abstraction/Portrait of Paul Strand) (1917), watercolor on paper, 12″ x 8-7/8″; courtesy The Whitney Museum of American Art

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A painting is fully experienced only through direct contact. A photograph might give an indication of what a particular canvas looks like, but not what it is or, more crucially, what it does. Subtleties in surface and scale, especially, are lost or muddled in reproduction. Who hasn’t been wowed by a picture in a catalog or online only to be disappointed when the thing is encountered in the flesh? I was reminded of the limits of photographic reproduction, as well as those it benefits, while viewing Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction, an important but vexing exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

An O’Keeffe flower painting, seen as a poster in a friend’s apartment a few years back, gave me pause: The composition was impeccably considered, the contours precisely calibrated, space softly stated yet abrupt in impact and the palette an impressive range of near-monochromes. It was enough to send me to the actual painting (it’s in the Met’s collection) eager to reconsider my tepid estimation of O’Keeffe. But what looked stunning in reproduction was, in tangible fact, arid and lifeless. O’Keeffe’s sophistication as an image-maker couldn’t redeem her joyless way with a brush. How damning is it when a painting is improved by glossy reproduction?

A similar phenomenon occurs at the Whitney. Walk into any of the galleries displaying O’Keeffe’s oil paintings. From a distance, their eccentricities are beguiling. O’Keeffe’s vocabulary of shape—divined from the natural world, then cropped, streamlined, and rendered monumental—is deeply eccentric and, at times, forbiddingly obscure. Sloping outlines, enveloping funnels of space, and sinuous, slow motion rhythms evince a keen debt to Art Nouveau and neatly encapsulate O’Keeffe’s uncanny connection to the land. The highly distilled images, gleaned from bones, flora, lakes, shells, and mountains, evoke the cosmic as much as the microscopic, the otherworldly as much as the here-and-now. The work is extravagant in its romanticism and severe in its detachment. But this paradox was put forth with, at best, drab efficiency. O’Keeffe was no painter.

O’Keeffe famously got the attention of Alfred Stieglitz on the basis of her works on paper. The photographer and pioneering art dealer perceived a homespun visionary behind O’Keeffe’s diaphanous veils of watercolor and velvety charcoal surfaces. Her drawings are less renderings of nature than personifications of it; they embody forces, not things. But Stieglitz, ever the businessman, already represented a “paper” artist—John Marin—and didn’t want another. He urged O’Keeffe to take up oils. Applying feathery brushstrokes to canvas, she mastered the medium’s descriptive capacity without achieving its material sensuality. O’Keeffe’s touch, dutiful and pedantic, made for surfaces absent of tooth, spark, or juice: an artist in thrall to watercolor and charcoal turned mere messenger of iconography when working in oils.

Abstraction is a concerted and scholarly attempt to resuscitate O’Keeffe’s standing from being a “calendar artist” (in the lead curator Barbara Haskell’s words) to a pioneering abstractionist. Anyone who has tired of the mythical O’Keeffe—you know, the Sphinx-like Grande Dame of the American Southwest, an image cultivated by an artist as media savvy, in her own way, as Jeff Koons—will welcome the results. With the exception of the late paintings in the final gallery, wherein spare transcriptions of her New Mexico surroundings devolved into spiritualist kitsch, the artist revealed is intensely focused, almost insatiably curious and deeply accepting of her own nature.

O’Keeffe isn’t renowned for having a sense of humor or for being a surrealist, but some of the pictures—I’m thinking, especially, of Grey, Blue & Black—Pink Circle (1929), with its addled bio-morphs and frilly surroundings—are droll and radiate a fairy tale ambiance. At the very least, whimsy follows upon unlikely juxtapositions of form: The forlorn blip of light ensconced within the ominous hulk of Black Abstraction (1927), say, or the elegant turd-like form standing its ground against a ghostly flux of space in Shell and Old ShingleVI(1926).

Elsewhere, O’Keeffe dips her toe into Cubist waters (New York—Night [1926]), elaborates upon Kandinsky’s transcendentalist longings (the stormy From the Lake, No. 1 [1924]) and flirts with Suprematist concision (Abstraction, Red and Black, Night [1929]). All the while she does so without abandoning the literalism that helps power the work even as it deadens her sense of formal invention. Not for nothing did the critic Clement Greenberg peg O’Keeffe as “pseudo-modern.”

The catalog essayists are intent on downplaying “feminine” readings of the work—they’ll have no truck with gynecological interpretations of the flower paintings. Good luck to them: At the press preview, a veteran arts writer intoned at length to anyone within earshot about the “amazing speculum experience” afforded by O’Keeffe’s art. But the curators will have a harder time shifting attention away from O’Keeffe’s longstanding professional and personal relationship with Stieglitz, particularly when they’ve squirreled away his erotic photos of O’Keefe in a side gallery. As works of art, they’re no great shakes—the photos are as mannered as the acting in a subpar silent film—but their nimbleness and surety are worlds away from O’Keeffe’s stodginess.

All the same, the Whitney exhibition highlights, with impressive clarity, O’Keeffe’s singular accomplishment. Its insurmountable frustrations notwithstanding, “Abstraction” is an important contribution to our understanding of American modernism.

© 2009 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 2009 edition of The New Criterion.


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