PRINT December 1985


I HAVE NEVER shared the prevailing view of Georgia O’Keeffe’s achievement as an artist. The big claims made for her oils strike me as thoughtlessly exaggerated. Appreciation of these works has become confused with approbation of the example O’Keeffe has set for other women artists and with awe at the prices her paintings command. She happens to have filled credibly, though reluctantly, the need of both critics and art market for a modern American woman artist to make it into the ranks of the “major.” Her achievement has been inflated accordingly.

As an oil painter, O’Keeffe has always thought like a poster designer. The medium in which she moves most freely and inventively is watercolor, as she discovered very early in her career. People who accept the bias of museums and the marketplace against watercolor will take this judgment to say that O’Keeffe is a minor artist. But that is not at all what I mean. On the contrary, I believe O’Keeffe is one of the few 20th-century artists to show that the supposedly “minor” medium of watercolor can yield “major” works of art.

For some years, I have been hoping to see an exhibition of O’Keeffe’s watercolors. This fall, the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe attempted such a show. Loans of the watercolors proved very difficult to arrange, even with the artist’s help. The show that resulted, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Works on Paper,” included pieces in charcoal, monotype, linocut, and pastel as well as in watercolor. And the conditions of the loans regrettably dictated that the show not travel. However, even with only 30 pieces, the exhibition was large and fine enough to make the point that in O’Keeffe’s case critics and collectors may have taken too literally the tacit claim of large works to be more significant than small ones.

At this writing, as her 98th birthday approaches, O’Keeffe is rumored to be too ill to visit the Santa Fe show, though she moved to the city vicinity in 1984. Her death, whenever it occurs, is almost certain to trigger a new avalanche of uncritical praise. I wish to go on record with praise of what seems to me to be her true accomplishment.

The exaggeration of O’Keeffe’s achievement as an oil painter is part of a general incomprehension, even among art world professionals, of the difficulty of working in watercolor. The watercolorist is denied the high impact that a big canvas almost automatically can make. Even the small selection of works in the Santa Fe show attested how consistently O’Keeffe could make the intimate scale, light touch, and sparkling hues of watercolor yield effects that expand in the imagination with a grandeur that most large canvases rarely achieve convincingly. Tempted like any artist to take steps to ensure that her work reach its public, O’Keeffe once remarked that she had abandoned watercolor for oil because she wanted her work to be seen; people simply weren’t paying enough attention to the watercolors.

We may never know how large a part Alfred Stieglitz played in that decision. To Stieglitz, who married O’Keeffe in 1924, she embodied the truth of his conviction that there had to be undiscovered women artists of real vision and originality. Any reservations she may have had about her own potential as an artist were overwhelmed by his confidence in her and his willingness to support her if she would give up teaching in the South, move permanently to New York, and devote herself to painting. She accepted his offer, but with no intention of surrendering the independence that her images of the Southwest symbolized. Stieglitz is said to have gone west of the Hudson River only once, before they met. And for many years, beginning in the mid ’20s, O’Keeffe would leave him every summer for New Mexico. He had difficulty accepting just how ruthlessly she followed his advice that she devote her life to painting, but he had made a motto of the idea that “freedom is necessary to sincerity,” and she forced him to live by it.

In 1917, Stieglitz gave O’Keeffe her first solo show, of watercolors, at his 291 gallery. It may have included several of the pictures in the Santa Fe exhibition; there was no catalogue, so we do not know for sure. In any case, it is no exaggeration to say that many of the works in the Santa Fe show were the basis of O’Keeffe’s art and of her career.

Contrary to legend, O’Keeffe did not make her early watercolors in ignorance of other Modern European and American art. She already knew and admired Arthur Dove’s work, for example. She had seen Auguste Rodin’s watercolors at Stieglitz’s gallery as her wonderful Seated Nude XI, 1917, suggests. And she had read about and seen, at least in reproduction, key works of Post-Impressionism and Cubism.

However, no influence can explain the ease and economy of the young O’Keeffe’s handling of watercolor. Perhaps she doubted that she was working hard enough to make important pictures when she turned out approximately 9-by-12-inch watercolors such as Pink and Green Mountain, No. 1, or Landscape and Layered Mountain, both 1917. She achieved so much suggestive effect with so few colors and touches of the brush to the paper in these pictures as to make her large oil landscapes look stiffly labored by comparison. Notice how deftly she uses “stain-backs"—the all but uncontrollable drift of pigments as wet areas dry—to suggest vegetation, land contours, even snow cover, in Pink and Green Mountain, No. 1. This and other pictures, such as the “Evening Star” series, 1917, are simple enough to appear abstract at first, yet a title is sufficient to transform them into landscape images that seem to comprehend the planetary wholeness of the earth. And works such as Canna Lily, 1919, and Maine, 1922, show that O’Keeffe was not limited to one way of handling watercolor; their vibrating ambiguities of scale set the imagination pulsing. These modest works seem like prototypes of the visual double meanings even her best oil paintings realize too laboriously.

It is not just for their technical deftness that I see O’Keeffe’s early watercolors as her finest work. Their intimate scale is paradoxically but perfectly suited to their Romantic theme. That theme is the spaciousness of existence, seen as an antidote to the spiritual anesthesia of the age: “How wonderful it would be,” she said once, “to simply stand out in space and have nothing.” To look at the images, you have to bring your attention to a tight focus. But the details you see feed a vision of enveloping landscape and sky, a vision that sweeps away the rigid sightlines of self-absorption and self-interest. Looking carefully at O’Keeffe’s early watercolors, you have to shuttle imaginatively between the narrow and the broad viewpoint, between small dimensions and large conceptions. At one pole of that transit of attention, the small scale of the works makes you feel yourself to be very large, bigger than life. At the other, when you surrender to the images’ expansiveness, they remind you how humbling and forgiving is the vastness of space in which human affairs transpire. In this way, the best of O’Keeffe’s watercolors recreate in esthetic terms the tension between a constricted, self-interested view of life and an expansive view grounded in mindfulness of the earth. She seems to have aimed at just such an effect in many of her works on canvas, perhaps without realizing she had already accomplished it by other means, or possibly believing that no one but she would understand that she had.

Kenneth Baker is the senior art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and a contributing editor of Artforum.