PRINT May 1966

A Georgia O’Keeffe Retrospective in Texas

MISS GEORGIA O’KEEFFE IS NOW 78 years old; her first principal exhibition of paintings at one of Alfred Stieglitz’s galleries (Photo Secession) came when she was almost 30, after a kind of apprenticeship, in commercial art and college instruction, to her career as a painter. Stieglitz, who married Miss O’Keeffe in 1924 and who died twenty years ago this summer, has long ago been placed in deserving legend for his consuming struggle, as champion of American art unchained, with our indigenous Philistia. A few of the others in the circle surrounding “291,” “The Intimate Gallery,” and “An American Place”—especially Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley (Marin looms as something larger, different)—are evocative of a pioneer modernism in American painting and are, as such, historical entities.

That Georgia O’Keeffe will eventually be assimilated into the vast, slowly receding limbo enigmatically known as contemporary art history is beyond doubt; the timeless beauty or instruction offered by any work or body of works cannot entirely disassociate it from the stylistic and physical chronology of its creator, which becomes the nominal property of those who, with all the clarity of hindsight, chart childhood environment, places of study, occupational history, artistic development, influences taken and given and the momentum generated by the artist. Georgia O’Keeffe, in the current retrospective of 96 works given her at the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art in Fort Worth, Texas, stands precisely on the boundary between our time, now, and history in our time.

There are three general characteristics which lend to Miss O’Keeffe the aura of quiet, monumental sagacity which, in part at least, enjoins the historical: she has visited, fought and won battles of another period which are somewhat forgotten but still indispensable to painting today; she rises out of an American spirit which could be called Romanesque—when our clean, broad vista of waving wheat and cities and radio was coupled with a social drama capable of maturing, enlightening and uplifting a generation, in short, the ’30s; and she practices (emphatic present tense) an approach to painting which is subdued, if not rejected, by our current stratum of American painters.

There is, in the formalism of Georgia O’Keeffe, a feeling about painting pictures which is alien to painters of the 1960s. (Miss O’Keeffe herself excepted). Her paintings, belying the cohesiveness of the exhibited group of works, are singular objects-in-themselves; they are not mere bright ideas proselytizing logistics. They have little militant force in steering modes of art one way or another, and it is doubtful whether this assembling of a large number of her paintings in this one place will revive any latent martial value; Miss O’Keeffe’s works, for all the sweep and scale, are essentially of an old-fashioned stripe: objects of quiet delight and contemplation. The paintings also speak of arbitration and planning, conception and execution, which, save for an almost vicious “cool” and cynical removal inhabiting certain current sub-styles, are not of this year, this month, this week. The deer horns are placed on the rectangle with severe aplomb; the mountains are molded carefully to a geological density yet remain flexible, pliable flesh, and the irises are engineered to a lovely, lyric ambiguity of size. Miss O’Keeffe does this with a directness, a thickness of paint, a feeling and respect for the canvas (in sizes that range, with one exception, from art-supply store regularity to slightly odd proportions), and a deliberate, but less than hard, brushwork that has fallen from the possession of a few masterful painters to the almost exclusive province of the student.

The scale is balanced on the opposite side with genuine virtuoso formalism, durability, continuum within the oeuvre and, indeed, a personal image which would defy anything else but now. Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings are riddled with recurring problems and solutions that indicate that these hypotheses are never categorically done away with, that they must be attacked and overcome in thousands of pictures, in thousands of ways, from now until there is no painting. Her pictures remain separate, individual manifestations; they make space around themselves; they can breathe and, consequently, they can live relatively long lives. (The sensibility of the exhibition as a totality subtracts absolutely nothing from this.) Lastly, there is the continuing peripheral activity surrounding her painting: the Worcester, Massachusetts retrospective of 1960, the present exhibition, and the forthcoming monograph on her life and work; it may be safe to assume that none of these, due to the range of accomplishment of the artist, will remain as definitive.

Within a body of work, Georgia O’Keeffe reveals a series of esthetic encounters and, more often than not, victories; although the show is pleasant, it is, if one looks, didactic. In the following incomplete listing of formalistic achievements, the works have been compartmented into the products of particular, numerically consistent decades; this may in itself constitute a critical falsehood, but the deeds of the work will overshadow any misplaced categorization.

The earliest work in the exhibition is dated 1915; in those paintings and drawings executed before 1920, one perceives an attempt, conscious or not (judging from Miss O’Keeffe’s rather unadorned, straightforward comments about her own work, it would be the former) at limiting the means of picture-making as a discipline, in order to strip away the dead weight of second-hand ideas and to inject an absolute honesty into the process. Light Coming in off the Plains, No. II, 1917, is a magnificent simplistic watercolor which conveys, in varying blues on a small piece of paper, the grandeur of interacting, omnipresent natural elements: sky and earth. It may be, in relation to both the work of other painters and the rest of Georgia O’Keeffe, the most independent painting of the lot. An oil, 59th Street Studio, 1919, is a prototype of the New Mexico paintings. Seen alone, it is a rather sensitive, well constructed basic abstraction of building, window, and the grey of city living, while in context it is a demonstration of the woman’s remarkable will: the esthetic had nested in the person, and the person proceeded to find a home for both in the land.

The paintings of the ’20s display an expansion of pictorial devices revolving around the issue of representation and abstraction (Miss O’Keeffe never made a political commitment to either; she managed, over another twenty years of painting, to invert the matter and make it seem as though the question of illusionistic form was irrelevant as long as she produced works). In this period we encounter the element of ambiguity as a formal tool as basic and utilitarian as line, tone, pattern or color. At first it was size: how large or small are those flowers? The paintings have an imperative connoting that just knowing the pictures are big representations of actually small flowers is a cheap, erroneous answer. later, it grew to include position in space, material and color. And none of it is expedient: the strange feeling that a hill (Red Hills and Blue Sky, 1945) might also be a portion of a female nude is not the insinuation of an irrelevant, quasisurreal facility artificially heightening the impact; it gives to the landscape a corporeal life which, in turn, renders it a more painterly subject. During the ’20s, certain periodical criticism inferred vaginal allusions in several of her paintings, though it was never outrightly laid on the line; her work was described as containing “pernicious suggestions that allude to emotional life” and as being “almost unbearably intimate.” (All reporting was not so thankless, however, and an occasional insight was recorded: in a group exhibition with Charles Sheeler, among others—with whom she was to be named, out of superficies and coincidence more than anything else, a “Precisionist”—the observation was made that “Miss O’Keeffe’s pictures are the clean cut result of an intensely passionate apprehension of things, Mr. Sheeler’s the clean-cut result of an apprehension that is extremely intellectual.”) Whether or not there are sexual parts lurking in -the pictorial configurations may never get certification one way or another, but in the light of the whole of her work, the idea is painfully trivial. The Culmination of the ’2Os is embodied in Black Hollyhocks and Blue Larkspur, 1929, a fantasy of exotic color (something that Miss O’Keeffe, carving a path through taste, anti-taste and the stigma of being so obviously pretty, could force to work plastically) and form, although the most impressive single tour de force is Shelton with Sun Spots, 1926, an optical illusion which owes its entire representational force to the fact that it is an abstract reconstruction of, not the scene, but a visual phenomenon. From 1930 through 1939, there is a sorting out of methods; the abstractions (e.g. Black and White, 1930, which is relatively unsuccessful) are neglected in favor of simplified and re-strengthened means. Dark Mesa and Pink Sky, 1930, is notable for both its pictorial clarity through limited size and strangely unglamorous color, and the painting of the pink sky out onto the form (a device which is a performer’s trick, for it gives the small painting an enlarged sense of space otherwise unavailable). One of the Canadian barn pictures (No.1, 1932) is a triumph of less-is-more in color; the grey (and, sadly, cracking) roof in that building is probably the most lush, convincing non-chroma that one could see in a lifetime.

The ten years between 1940 and 1950 see a perfection of the ambiguity begun two decades earlier; it has now been expanded and fulfilled (Red Hills and Sky, 1945) and extended to include a kind of soaring scale of architecture and emptiness, as in “Pelvis with the Moon,” 1944. And she is able to wring a fantastic depth out of a blue white painting entitled Pelvis IV (Oval with Moon), 1944. After 1950, Georgia O’Keeffe’s work undergoes a spilt: the “Patio Door” series is begun, representing a thread retrieved from the. “Studio” painting of 1919. This series of paintings is to result in two wonderful pictures in the ’50s—Green Patio Door and Black Patio Door, both of 1955—and then progress to a more absolute geometry of color-on-white in 1960, White Patio with Red Door. But there also occurs, unfortunately, a weaker kind of painting, Mesa and Road to the East, 1952, and Winter Cottonwoods Soft, 1954, wherein Miss O’Keeffe falls back on an open brushwork, a desert realist sort of composition, sandy color, and a nostalgia about the landscape, which has been intruded upon by this “ road to the east.” The half-dozen paintings dating from 1960 are as vital as any of their predecessors: the last “Patio Door,” is an irreducible brown winter road on a white plane, and a huge exception to size.

As an exhibition, the retrospective presented by Director Mitchell Wilder, James Johnson Sweeney and, of course, Miss O’Keeffe, is an admirable show. The walls in this comparatively small museum have been re-whited and covered only sparingly with paintings and drawings, reflecting something of the revolutionary seriousness and esthetic austerity of “An American Place.” The selection of works is varied, chronologically and stylistically democratic; in addition, the Fort Worth institution gives a coincidental appropriateness to Georgia O’Keeffe’s work: one can turn from the epic steppes of New Mexico and look upon the city skyline, at an endless Texas beyond, and return to the pictures with a slightly renewed empathy for what it’s all about. In the catalog, Miss O’Keeffe’s own words about her paintings are the most enlightening; and they are unreservedly about painting: “School and things that painters have taught me even keep me from painting as I want to. I decided I was a very stupid fool not to at least paint as I wanted to and say what I wanted to when I painted as that seemed to be the only thing I could do that didn’t concern anybody but myself—that was nobody’s business but my own. So these paintings and drawings happened and many others that are not here.” (1923). But the incidental comment, the eulogism of Marsden Hartley from an exhibition catalog of the ’30s, and the insufferable, snotty, irrelevant chic of Henry McBride (“I should like Mae West to see it . . . On second thought I should like Mae West not to see it . . . It might disarrange her views of play-writing—which would be a public calamity.” (1930) is helpful in understanding the winds that blew with and against Georgia O’Keeffe and her art.

The Texas plains where Georgia O’Keeffe taught art and first contracted the germ of that pristine, yet tactile and graceful, landscape space with which her paintings are inundated, and the wondrous New Mexico that held her entranced for forty years are now being corroded by other forces in American life and thought. (The Taos and Santa Fe areas were first the subject of romantic illustrator-academicians who sent back pictures of the cliffs, sunsets, broken wagons, and Indians in much the same spirit as “Harper’s” published drawings of the Civil War; now, though many of us have never experienced the raw majesty of that country, in spite of Miss O’Keeffe’s penetrations, space like that is no longer “out there”; we have pierced it with roads and cars and we are prepared to bridge, circumvent, invade and gouge it with the same Promethean technology that sends payloads to the moon, breeds megalopoli and engages in cybernetic debates over lethal and non-lethal gas.)

Any account of Miss O’Keeffe and this show must mention the gigantic painting, Above the Clouds, 1966, fully eight by twenty-four feet. Can it be, one wonders, that the scents of innovation of the last seven or eight years have drifted to New Mexico? Does that vast, mechanical recession of clouds (or, as many at the show seemed to think even after reading the title card, icebergs) contain, daresay it, a schematic banality related to billboards? Or is this the retarded metamorphosis of scale into physical reality, openness into actual surface, light into enormous quantities of white and color into primaries? That Georgia O’Keeffe, after all she has done, can do this, is tribute enough, history notwithstanding.

Peter Plagens