Love It or Hate It, O’Keeffe’s at the Whitney

georgia okeeffe getty Love It or Hate It, OKeeffes at the WhitneyThere are two types of people Barbara Haskell hopes to surprise with the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition opening on Thursday, Sept. 17, at the Whitney Museum of American Art: those who love O’Keeffe for her famous flowers and those who deride her for them.

The show, which consists of more than 130 pieces, highlights O’Keeffe’s little known abstract works, many of which she made early in her career, before her focus shifted to the more representational paintings of flowers, animal bones, and landscapes for which she is best known. In an interview Tuesday, Ms. Haskell, who led the curatorial team, said the exhibition aims both to advance the idea that O’Keeffe was at heart an abstractionist, and to rescue her from critics who for years have written off her work as decorative and commercial kitsch.

“We want to argue that Georgia O’Keeffe created a body of fantastically radical abstract work, and that she was at the forefront of the most vanguard concepts of what it meant to make a painting,” Ms. Haskell said. “There’s a paradox, in that she is so beloved by the public and yet in some ways is not taken as seriously by the so-called art connoisseurs. She needed a fresh look. One of the handlers here said he’d always taken her for granted and had never thought of her as a serious painter. Now he’s totally convinced.”

New York gallerists and art dealers who have exhibited O’Keeffe’s paintings confirmed the split nature of the artist’s reputation.

“No one gets any street cred for saying Georgia O’Keeffe is a really beautiful painter,” said Reagan Upshaw, the director of the Gerald Peters Gallery. “Instead you get, ‘Oh, come on, I’ll bet you like her. I bet you like little kids with big eyes, too. How sweet.’ You don’t get no respect!”

But, he said, “in the teens and twenties, she was as far out as anybody. When she was doing those abstract things, there was no one in America more avant-garde than she was.”

“In the teens, she wasn’t doing flower pictures at all,” said the dealer James Reinish. “Sometimes when I handle, as a dealer, the abstract things, and I put them in front of someone who is not sophisticated about her work, they don’t even know who did it. They’ll say, ‘Who’s that?’ And I say Georgia O’Keeffe, and they say, ‘Oh, really? I thought she just did flowers and landscapes.’”

“People tend to generalize about her,” said Hollis Taggart, whose gallery is across the street from the Whitney. “But the truth is she was an extremely forward-looking modernist in the American tradition.”

Despite being part of that tradition, O’Keeffe has been woven into the fabric of American pop culture the way few other 20th-century artists have been ever since the Whitney mounted a major retrospective back in 1970 that is credited with rescuing her from obscurity and turning her into a feminist icon.

In Ms. Haskell’s view, it is partly that cultural prominence—reflected most recently in a Vogue photo spread starring Charlize Theron shot at O’Keeffe’s old home, and a biopic starring Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons that will premiere on Lifetime two days after the Whitney show opens—that is responsible for the cool, and sometimes caustic, attitude with which she is regarded in the art world. 

“There’s an aspect of, ‘If everyone likes it and I’m supposed to know something that everyone doesn’t know, I have to be more critical,’” Ms. Haskell said.

According to Roxana Robinson, the author of a 1989 biography of the artist, critics were always hostile toward O’Keeffe, starting with her earliest exhibitions.

“The critics liked to dismiss her as a woman, and anything she did as soft and emotional,” Ms. Robinson said. “One of the critics early on said, ‘This is just a woman who wants to have a baby.’ There was always a group of voices that were outraged by her work. And they took different positions to ridicule and minimize it.”

The fact that Alfred Stieglitz, who became the first gallerist to exhibit O’Keeffe in 1916 and married her eight years later, displayed a set of nude photographs he had taken of the artist further encouraged art critics to make sexualized readings of her work. According to Ms. Haskell, it was partly her frustration with that response—and a desire to avoid it in the future—that moved O’Keeffe to turn away from abstraction and toward more representational art.

But the critics did not grow any kinder. Following a 1946 show at the Met, Ms. Haskell said, Clement Greenberg published a review that is remarkable even by today’s standards for its vitriol.

“For him, she was the antithesis of modernism,” Ms. Haskell said. “He said [her painting] was a combination of scatology and hygiene, or something like that. It was very dismissive. So that was the low point for her, and that lasted probably through the ’50s.”

After her death in 1986, the Met mounted a memorial retrospective that earned another damaging review, this time by John Russell in The New York Times, who criticized O’Keeffe’s flower portraits as “calendar art” and her landscapes as pictures from a “high-class tourist brochure.”

That is what Ms. Haskell and her collaborators on this exhibition are up against. And when you ask the curator who must be won over in order for her mission to have been a success, she says that for better or for worse, there is no longer just one critic who is dominant enough to be able to set the tone for the show’s reception. “That doesn’t exist anymore,” she said. “It’ll be one vote at a time.”

It will likely be a lot of votes, as the show—which will run for four months before moving to the Phillips Collection in Washington on Feb. 6 and to the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe on May 28—is expected to be a very welcome cash cow for the Whitney.

“She’s very popular but, you never know, since abstraction is something that the public doesn’t usually respond to as much as they respond to realism, but in walking through the show, it’s so clear that she’s tapping into something so primal and so … rapturous,” Ms. Haskell said. “You sort of feel this transcendent joy, and that’s going to appeal to people.”

Mr. Upshaw, the gallery director, was less ambivalent in his predictions: “This show is gonna be packed,” he said. “It would not surprise me at all if it breaks exhibition records. But it will be from people who don’t normally go to the Whitney, and a lot of critics are gonna say, ‘Oh, yeah, look at all those people out there, lining up to see the pretty paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe.’ But the Whitney will rake in a fortune. They’ll laugh or cry all the way to the bank.”

lneyfakh@observer.com