Jane Addams Allen 1987
SUMMARY: Georgia O’Keeffe cultivated an image as hard and austere as the bones and mountains that were her favorite subjects. But a National Gallery of Art exhibition featuring rarely seen works and many of O’Keeffe’s personal letters offers another view and makes clear that she was an intensely alive artist, passionate about her work.
We are used to thinking of Georgia O’Keeffe as an American art icon — too severe and reserved to be quite human.
By the time she died last year at the great age of 98, her face had the same flint-hard purity as her favorite subjects; skulls burned white by the sun and mountains eroded by time and the elements.
That was the public O’Keeffe. There was another O’Keeffe though, a quicksilver dancer to nature’s liveliest rhythms, a woman who trembled and laughed and darned socks on the floor to bring her soul down to earth.
It is this intensely alive artist who is the primary subject of “Georgia O’Keeffe,” a centennial exhibition at Washington’s National Gallery of Art. Built around a core of 45 rarely seen works from the artist’s estate, the show of 120 drawings, watercolors, pastels and oils helps cut away the calcified myth of austerity (in large part her own creation) that has grown up around the artist and brings her art back to pulsing life.
It will not be a show to everyone’s taste. Many of the poster-perfect images like “Cow’s Skull — Red, White, and Blue” and “White Canadian Bam No. II” are not in the exhibition. Her famous flower paintings, which figured so largely in the 1970 Whitney Museum of American Art retrospective, are relatively minor players here.
In spite of negative speculation, the estate works prove to be hoarded treasures rather than also-rans. The participation of O’Keeffe’s companion Juan Hamilton as a joint curator with the National Gallery’s Jack Cowart was an indispensable catalyst to a broader view of the artist, not only in the selection of works but also in a selection of letters reprinted in the catalog. These are witty and endearing documents that help us know the artist better, both as a compassionate and loving friend and as an intelligent participant in the ideas and issues of her time.
The opening two galleries are biographically and artistically the most intense in the show, which will travel to Chicago, Dallas and New York after it closes Feb. 21 in Washington. Intimate and hexagonal in shape, these galleries contain the charcoal drawings and watercolors that first brought O’Keeffe to the attention of the photographic artist Alfred Stieglitz and New York. These vibrant early works reflect not only the spontaneous delight she found in nature but also her self-doubting and always passionate quest to be true to her sensations.
Although they were daringly abstract for their time, they are not sophisticated in the urban sense of the word. Most of them were made during teaching jobs in Columbia, S.C., and in Canyon, Texas. They emerge from an individual, not a collective, aesthetic adventure.
One reason they are so compelling, in fact, is that they reflect two incompatible yearnings that were to plague the artist until she moved permanently to New Mexico in 1949, She loved isolation and closeness to nature but detested the pettiness of regional America. She longed for communion with great souls.
Her letters to her dear friend Anita Pollitzer, to photographer Paul Strand and to Stieglitz himself swing wildly between exultation and despair, between ecstatic descriptions of nature and frustration with her own efforts to express what she feels. “Is it our theory of life that stunts us —” she asks and answers in the same sentence, “Most of us are not even respectable warts on the face of the earth —”
But in the very next sentence she adds, “Anita I’m [sic] feeling fine and feel as if Im just having time to get my breath and stand still and look at the world — it is great sport.”
The show’s five 1915 charcoal drawings from her South Carolina stay are strongly influenced by three sources. The first was Alon Bement, who encouraged her to make abstract drawings to music. The second was Bement’s teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, with whom she studied just before the Columbia job. Dow emphasized that the landscape painter’s task was to express a unique emotion. And finally there were Stieglitz’s publications “291” (named after his gallery) and “Camera Work,” which not only discussed such ideas but also presented the work of living artists such as Arthur Dove and John Marin, who were forging a new American art.
Each of the 1915 drawings in the show suggests an increasingly mature merger of these influences with Georgia O’Keeffe’s intrinsic sensitivity to natural forms. Her progress, like her personality, was swift and embracing. Derivative of art nouveau but beautifully rendered, “Special No. 2” depicts a shiny black egg nesting high in a symmetrical fountain of water. In “Special No. 4” and “Special No. 5” rhythmic vertical forms suggest liquid sounds.
“Special No. 13” introduces three forms, abstracted from nature, that remained essential to her artistic vocabulary: a series of ascending rounded stone or treelike forms, a jagged lightning bolt and a flat, wavy shape like a river. This beautiful drawing has a rapt, dreamlike quality as if she had simply translated a vision that sprang unbidden to her mind.
“Special No. 9,” perhaps the most individual of the drawings, represents a headache. It must have been a hell of a headache. Implacable writhing waves rise from the lower edge of the drawing; above, soft drip forms bore holes in a soft gray mass.
These drawings are doubly important because they are among those Anita Pollitzer showed to Stieglitz Jan. 1, 1916. It was a nervy thing for her to do. Stieglitz was a great man; she was a mere student at Teachers College at Columbia University. But O’Keeffe had told her in a letter, “Anita — do you know — I believe I would rather have Stieglitz like something — anything I had done — than anyone else I know of” and her good friend had responded.
So did Stieglitz. Pollitzer reported him saying, “Why they’re genuinely fine things — You say a woman did these — She’s an unusual woman — She’s broad minded, she’s bigger than most women, . . . tell her . . . they’re the purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while.”
Thus began one of the century’s great romances. They exchanged letters. In May 1916, without her permission, Stieglitz hung her drawings as part of a three-person show.
Indignant, she went to demand that he take them down. He was charmed; she was already primed to give in by her admiration for his work. The pictures stayed.
It is good to know, though, that Georgia O’Keeffe’s basic artistic vocabulary was in place well before Stieglitz took her in hand. Years later, after they were married, she wrote, “I feel like a little plant that he has watered and weeded and dug around.” Maybe so, but the mature plant was already implicit in the seedling. This is made doubly clear by the next group of works: a joyous series of watercolors from Canyon, where she was head of the West Texas State Normal College art department.
It took courage for the National Gallery to show these small and sometimes unresolved paintings in a major exhibit. This is not the classic O’Keeffe of later years. Three nudes show her experimenting with her own image — the human figure is rarely seen in her oeuvre. Another is a fluid abstract portrait.
She was as prescient in Canyon as she was in Columbia. Two paintings, “Starlight Night” and “Sunrise and Little Clouds II,” introduce the horizontal patterned structure and close-toned harmonies she used at the very end of her life in her airplane series, “Sky Above Clouds.”
In spite of her exhilaration at the Texas landscape, New York was like a magnet pulling her back. Her correspondence with Stieglitz grew to daily letters. Meanwhile, she was worn down by her efforts to fight provincial lethargy and prejudice.
At one point she raised a storm by asking the local drugstore not to sell Christmas cards with anti-German legends. (It was during 1918, the last year of World War I.) Finally she fell severely ill with influenza and took a leave of absence. Stieglitz sent Paul Strand to bring her back to New York.
“I was never so happy in my life,” she wrote in August 1918 from Lake George, the Stieglitz family’s summer home in New York. For the next 10 years, the two were inseparable. They married in 1924.
Alter her return to New York, she applied her new spirited color to the South Carolina abstracted forms. “Series 1. No. I” (1918) is like the lop of a surging rosy wave, a focusing in on one of the curling geysers from “Special No. 2.” In 1919 she began actively working once again with the analogy between art and music in lush, pastel-toned compositions such as “Music — Pink and Blue, II.”
One can imagine the hothouse atmosphere in which these works grew. Petted and constantly photographed by her husband, O’Keeffe joined an exalted and elite group of artists and writers, all far better known than she. On the one hand she was treated almost as a child of nature; on the other she was encouraged by Stieglitz to develop her talent in larger, more ambitious works.
Moreover, the press realized with unerring acumen that her striking looks and independent style were good copy. In 1922 she was featured on the pages of Vanity Fair as a new woman and a “Life Giver.” Freud was all the rage, and the sexual aspects of her paintings were much commented on.
It is a tribute to her resilient spirit and capacity for hard work that her art survived at all. It did, but the early spontaneity was lost, at least for a time. There is a self-conscious honing and polishing in her abstract works from the early 1920s. She learned to weave monumental compositions from simple motifs, but it did not come easily.
Her sensations before nature were still her best guide. One of her Finest New York works. “Red and Orange Streak” (1919), seems based on a double memory of Texas. On the one hand it fits her description of a Texas storm: “sheet lightning with a sharp bright zigzag flashing across it.” On the other she cites an aural source for the painting in her Viking Press book, “Georgia O’Keeffe.”
She wrote. “The cattle in the pens lowing for their calves day and night was a sound that has always haunted me. It had a regular rhythmic beat like the old Penitente songs. . . It was loud and raw under the stars in that wide empty country.”
Lake George, her country haven from New York, was also a fertile source of images. In “Lake George” (1924). a night scene, the landscape is wonderfully cold and remote, emptied of everything save mist and moonlight.
In spite of all the distractions and mounting demands from Stieglitz, who was aging and often ill, she worked constantly. She began the flower paintings in the early 1920s and they quickly became her trademark images, both for their accessible subject matter and for the sexual meanings that could be read into them. For the painter, though, one suspects that they were at least in part defensive. One rather pathetic painting from 1928. “East River from the Shelton,” centers a pink vase or green leaves in front of a colorless New York dawn. It was as if in blowing up the flower image she could blot out all the things about urban life that distressed her.
When the lurid publicity about her so-called sexual imagery got too much for her, she painted small, objective still lifes. “I suppose the reason I got down to an effort to be objective is that I didn’t like the interpretations of my other things,” she wrote in 1924,
As the 1920s wore on, her life with Stieglitz became more and more burdened with mundane cares extraneous to her art. Worse yet, just as his demands on her time became greatest, he started a passionate affair with a young married woman, Dorothy Norman.
Reading O’Keeffe’s letters amusingly recounting Stieglitz’s complicated medical treatments, it is easy to get indignant on her behalf. “Castor oil every 15 minutes,” she I wrote in 1928, “and so on — divide those 25 — or is it 21 ounces into 5 meals — 8 until the girl who helped me grind and measure and rub the stuff through the 2 sieves actually got hysterical laughing about it.”
And then one contrasts the great man’s concurrent letters to Dorothy Norman as quoted in her recently published “Encounters: A Memoir.” “It is our spirits that merge – our very souls merge into an eternal Oneness of Being,” and much more of the same. No doubt, she helped him forget his aches and pains.
It is no surprise that Georgia O’Keeffe finally succumbed to her longing for the wide-open spaces of the Southwest. From 1929 she began spending her summers in New Mexico. A breakdown precipitated by her failure to finish a mural commission, but also in pain brought on by her husband’s affair, led to her assertion of a more independent life, although she continued to spend her winters with him until his death in 1946.
The last half of the show includes many of the great familiar works — her brilliant series of vertical New York scenes, where she paints the city as an organism driven by the same elemental rhythms she found in nature; her red Southwestern mountains and bleached white bones; the late sky paintings done from drawings she made in the air while flying round the world, A high point is a stormy landscape that still belongs to the estate. “Black Place — ID” (1944), and must he the object of feverish speculation by the nation’s museums.
But it is the small works she made at the outset of her career that give the keenest, most unexpected pleasure. With this fine show, the National Gallery has both humanized the O’Keeffe myth and added luster to it.
Jane Addams Allen was the co-founder of the New Art Examiner. We will be publishing one of her articles each issue in anticipation of a collection of her work to be published in 2019.
With thanks to Insight Magazine
Volume 32 no 4 March/April 2018 pp 22-24