Washington, DC

“Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things”

Lee Krasner, watching Georgia O’Keeffe on television in the Perry Miller Adato documentary, sarcastically remarked, “She comes on like Shirley Temple.” Of course, neither Krasner nor O’Keeffe could legitimately be compared to little tap-dancing Shirley, curls bobbing up and down the screen, dimpled smile never dimming. Krasner and O’Keeffe were both tough women. Indeed, the durable hardness of O’Keeffe’s persona, accurately symbolized by the animal bones and rocks of her Western landscape, contrasts with the fragility of her most widely admired subjects, the flowers she painted for most of her life.

The catalogue essays accompanying “The Poetry of Things” hope to free O’Keeffe from the lady-flower-painter category by matching her aesthetic principles to those of her male colleagues, among them Arthur Dove and Charles Demuth, who also painted flowers. The exhibition title further stresses her concern with still-life objects, extending beyond the flower to fruit, leaves, rocks, bones, and crosses in landscape settings. The opening wall text claims this is “the first exhibition to focus in depth on the aesthetic philosophy” of O’Keeffe through an examination of her paintings of objects. This claim is supported by an attempt at contextualization that is of questionable success, though it does provide didactic guides for an eager, headphone-equipped audience through the inclusion of small pots, rocks, animal bones, and a few enlarged photographs of O’Keeffe’s teaching classroom in Texas and her studio at Ghost Ranch. The key artifacts—opened to appropriate pages in the display case—are a handful of the books she most cared about, from Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art to Kazuko Okakura’s The Book of Tea.

Though certain contemporary feminist camps celebrate O’Keeffe as a “significant woman artist,” she didn’t enjoy that distinction. Both she and Krasner complained about “the men,” but they both liked to play with the big boys. They wanted to be taken, first and last, as artists. In this respect it is ironic that what makes O’Keeffe a “woman artist” is the in some sense conventional emphasis on fecundity. Here are flowers that procreate. They are sensual and sexual, seductive in their smooth unfolding crevices and folds. To stress the still-life aspect of her “things” as the program for this exhibition tries to do (albeit by way of still life “redefined”) is to miss the point. O’Keeffe is primarily a painter of nature, not a still-life artist. Her flowers opt out of the still-life category and become organic odes to “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower.” Her bones too, blanched white against a blue sky, remind us of the underlying skeletal unities of living matter.

For me, O’Keeffe’s flowers remain her great contribution to American art, joining a tradition that goes back to the eighteenth century with Mark Catesby’s magnolias, Martin Johnson Heade in the nineteenth, and on to Dove, Demuth, and Ellsworth Kelly. Most recently an O’Keeffe flower painting on a postage stamp enabled the United States Postal Service to contribute to the delectation of anyone receiving a bill.

What is ultimately memorable about “The Poetry of Things” is not the contextual paraphernalia or the carefully stated argument of the catalogue essays but the sheer impact of the paintings themselves. Seen head on, in full scale, O’Keeffe’s best flowers are startling in their power. You gaze at the hollowed centers of these opened petals and feel as if you could fall inside. When she made the flower big so people would “be surprised into taking time to look at it” she knew what she was doing. The catalogue rightly stresses the monumentality that scale gives to the flower’s fragility. But the flowers are not only monumental, they are—whatever the disclaimers—overwhelmingly sensual. The masterpiece of the show is Oriental Poppies, of 1928. With their purple centers, these winding red forms have all the fuliginous energy of a Nolde, despite their smooth surfaces.

A few grievous lapses in curatorial taste notwithstanding, there are enough great works in this exhibition to delight. The National Gallery has contributed four of the extraordinary Jack-in-the-Pulpit paintings, as erotic a series as O’Keeffe ever produced. (Though their presentation would have been even more powerful had the four been united on one wall instead of separated, I won’t quibble over details.) Dark Iris I, 1927, is here, as is Abstraction, White Rose III, of the same vintage year. They are followed by Two Calla Lilies on Pink, 1928. Even earlier, close to the beginning of her oeuvre, is the amazing charcoal series of 1915, including Special No. 2, which in its transcendent reach foreshadows Rothko’s mystical works of the mid-’40s.

O’Keeffe’s flowers flourish in a dialectical hothouse: timeless and momentary, essential and specific. The best of them get into the working system that defines, characterizes, makes the flower—its organic rhythm—and perfectly merge that rhythm with the rhythm of the painting. This is an essentially modernist construct, in which art and nature have equal rights in the viewer’s experience.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things” is on view at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM, Aug. 7–Oct. 17. It can be seen at the Dallas Museum of Art, Nov. 7, 1999–Jan. 30, 2000; and the Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco, Feb. 19–May 14, 2000.