Ellen Berkovitch On Georgia O'keeffe At The Whitney, New York

(Photo: Alfred Stieglitz; image © The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource, NY and The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York )

From left: Red, Yellow and Black Streak (1924); Sky Above Clouds III/Above the Clouds III (1963); Series I–No.3 (1918).
(Photo: From left: CNAC/MNAM/DIST. Réunion des musées nationaux/Art Resource, NY and © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York; Larry Sanders, © Milwaukee Art Museum)

I can’t 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 the Whitney’s opening of Georgia O’Keeffe: 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 O’Keeffe by her lover, Alfred Stieglitz.

On September 19th, on Lifetime Channel, the O’Keeffe biopic (produced and shot in New Mex by Sony Pictures TV) starring Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and Jeremy Irons as Stieglitz, premiered.
Hence we have the affair-to-remember redux lined up in the sights of fall’s blockbuster season.

Not having seen the Whitney show yet, or the biopic, I can’t opine as to what is the message board of this again-revamped story. Nor can I offer insight into how the O’Keeffe headlines bear on this newly promoted issue of women’s 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 O’Keeffe met), to be a woman with a future. And this leads me to wonder how O’Keeffe, 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 O’Keeffe, 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 O’Keeffe Museum curator Barbara Buhler Lynes made in her essay, later book, “O’Keeffe and the Critics.”

Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, along with O’Keeffe 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 “O’Keeffe and the Critics,” and how her thesis bears on this exhibit.) Whitney Senior Curatorial Assistant Sasha Nicholas spent two years at Yale’s Beinecke Library studying the Stieglitz O’Keeffe letters unsealed in 2006, of which a selection is printed in the catalog. Sasha Nicholas told Huff Po’s Culture Zohn that O’Keeffe’s Jack in the Pulpit series, “enact a case study in abstraction.”
O’Keeffe 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. O’Keeffe, watching such phenomena as “Evening star” and “Sunrise,” turned small, intimate paper into planar, expansive and ineffable explorations of landscape-abstraction.

Other female O’Keeffe scholars including Sharyn Udall of Santa Fe have tried situating O’Keeffe 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 O’Keeffe, 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 (Noguchi’s 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 O’Keeffe, along with compatriots, manifested petal-shredding feminists who had nothing against flowers. Indeed, as O’Keeffe 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. Let’s 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 O’Keeffe and to Pelton.

As to who helped make this Whitney exhibition possible? A look at the museum’s Web page shows that the exhibit borrows liberally from Anne Burnett-Tandy holdings (also known as Anne Marion), out of Ft. Worth, of early O’Keeffes. 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, it’s no small matter either how reified O’Keeffe’s 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 artist’s 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 O’Keeffe 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.

Ellen Berkovitch

Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction
Until 17 January 2010
New York

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