How good was Georgia O’Keeffe? As a painter, I mean.
As a personality O’Keeffe was, by all accounts, extraordinary. She certainly had little trouble captivating the attention of Alfred Stieglitz, who was not an easy mark-though he did, to be sure, have a thing about women much younger than himself. But as an artist? How much does O’Keeffe’s current claim to fame owe to factors entirely extrinsic to her actual artistic accomplishment?
Or, to state the question even more invidiously: How much did O’Keeffe’s initial reputation as an American modernist owe to her romance with Stieglitz in the earlier decades of this century, and how much does her current status as an American classic owe to the tidal wave of feminist politics and so-called gender studies that has lately engulfed the study of art history in the academy, the museums and the art press?
This is an admittedly provocative way of attempting a critical assessment of O’Keeffe’s work. Yet confronted-as we are in O’Keeffe’s case-with a reputation so woefully at odds with the artistic reality, drastic measures are called for. I have already had occasion to take note of the absurdly inflated place that has been accorded her work in the Whitney’s current American Century blockbuster. Now, two other current exhibitions- Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe & American Modernism at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., and Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.-offer contrasting accounts of O’Keeffe’s life and work. Taken together, you could hardly ask for a better demonstration of the equivocal character of O’Keeffe’s artistic standing.
In the American Modernism exhibition in Hartford, O’Keeffe is mainly seen not as an artist but as a love object-as the object, that is, of Stieglitz’s sexual passion and as a subject of his camera work. Much of the exhibition is indeed organized around the famous suite of photographs that Stieglitz devoted to O’Keeffe in the years 1918-1930. While there are also some examples of O’Keeffe’s paintings in the show, they are relegated to an ancillary role. In this account of American modernism, photography dominates-as one would expect it to in an exhibition celebrating Stieglitz’s accomplishments. Yet the photographs he devoted to O’Keeffe are by no means his own most important artistic contribution to modernism. That is to be found in the ambitious Equivalents series of photographs of skies and clouds that are Stieglitz’s most distinctive attempt to make photography a medium of abstract art.
About this aspect of Stieglitz’s work, the authors of the excellent catalogue of the Hartford show, Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser and Amy Ellis, make an interesting observation. “Stieglitz’s cloud series,” they write, “resulted in pure abstraction and reflected his belief that abstraction was ‘the true medium.'” Yet their further observation that the Equivalents pictures were “simultaneously abstract and representational” underscores something important not only about Stieglitz’s own esthetic but that of the modernist artistic circle he gathered around him at his 291 Gallery. Their conception of abstraction was fundamentally an attempt to reconcile the conflicting interests of nature and abstraction. This put them very much at odds with the ideas of the pioneers of European abstraction-Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian-who conceived of abstract art as an escape from the observation of nature. To effect a total rejection of nature was not something that the modernists of the Stieglitz circle could ever bring themselves to do.
Which brings us back to the problematic character of the art of Georgia O’Keeffe, who, despite an alleged devotion to Kandinsky’s treatise On the Spiritual in Art , never really had a clue as to what the esthetic of abstraction was about. In the O’Keeffe exhibition at the Phillips Collection, much attention is lavished on the influence of Arthur Wesley Dow-“Pa Dow,” as O’Keeffe called him-on O’Keeffe’s own version of modernism, and rightly so. Yet the conclusions to be drawn from that influence do a lot to explain O’Keeffe’s artistic failures. For when you penetrate the mystical vapors surrounding Dow’s ideas, what you find is a rather low-level version of 1890’s estheticism and Art Nouveau, an esthetic in which nature, far from being rejected or transcended, is turned into something ornamental and decorative.
And sure enough, in the early (1915) charcoal drawings that are included in the O’Keeffe show at the Phillips Collection, what you find is an academic version of an Art Nouveau style that had already been consigned to oblivion by the modernist avant-garde. In the catalogue of the Phillips show, Elizabeth Hutton Turner writes of these quasi-abstract charcoal drawings, which O’Keeffe called Specials , that “they mark the start of something new,” and that they “aligned
O’Keeffe’s quest with that of the European avant-garde,” but this is precisely what they are not. They are an attempt by a provincial talent to catch up with something the European avant-garde had already rejected. What in 1915 had captivated the interest of the European avant-garde-the legacy of Cézanne, the chromatic inventions of Matisse, the Cubism of Picasso and Braque, the Futurism of Marinetti and Boccioni and the early abstractions of Kandinsky-were all developments that O’Keeffe never really comprehended or acted upon in her art.
Whether this fundamental backwardness in her art, which found its principal expression in all those overscale flower illustrations, magnified clam shells, etc., all tricked out with smarmy suggestions of a kind of freeze-dried eroticism, is traceable to Dow’s retardataire influence, who can say with any certainty? Whatever the cause, O’Keeffe remained a provincial talent, and she seems herself to have understood that this was the case when, in the end, she left Stieglitz, left New York, and re-established herself in the more comforting provinciality of New Mexico. That so failed a talent should now be treated as a major artist tells us a lot more about the sexual politics of the art world of the 1990’s than it does about the art of Georgia O’Keeffe.
Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe & American Modernism runs until July 11 and Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things will be on view until July 18.