"Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction"

Let the Whitney reintroduce you to the artist you thought you knew.

  • Red & Orange Streak; Photograph: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bequest of Georgia...

  • Pink Tulip; Photograph: Collection of Emily Fisher Landau Georgia O'Keeffe...

Red & Orange Streak; Photograph: Philadelphia Museum of Art, Bequest of Georgia...

Time Out Ratings :

<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5

One of the biggest crimes committed by art historians against Georgia O’Keeffe has been the effort to straitjacket her into a number of limited roles: landscape painter, flower painter, feminist artist. Fortunately, the Whitney’s “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction,” which includes a good number of the artist’s early works on paper as well as a selection of canvases from each major stage of her career, rightly casts her as the complex and frequently conflicted character that she really was—one who balanced the desire to work in solitude with the cravings for recognition. As such, this survey reinvigorates the portrait of an artist whose work has been too easily simplified by even by her most ardent admirers.

The exhibition attempts to place O’Keeffe within a lineage of influential Abstractionists, something it doesn’t quite achieve, as it tries too hard to steer our attention away from her iconic later work; as a result the show ends up seeming a bit empty. This approach is certainly understandable: O’Keeffe’s landscapes and still lifes are among the most reproduced paintings in popular media—and it’s precisely this popularity, as well as the relative accessibility of her natural imagery, that’s led to her work being snubbed by the art world. Still, the exhibition performs a major service by excavating a small body of her very early work and placing it in the context of her later developmental periods. We learn that the artist, while still working in relative obscurity, exuberantly adopted forms of painting that presaged Abstract Expressionism.

O’Keeffe was born into a Midwestern family of modest means in 1887. By her late twenties she had relocated to the East Coast and taken up teaching art. A pedagogical revolution that placed an emphasis on expression over representation was transforming classroom methods at this time, thanks largely to the tenets of artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow. In 1912, between substitute teaching, some freelance design work and intermittent art school semesters, she enrolled in a drawing course for prospective art teachers taught by one of Dow’s disciples. O’Keeffe adopted these tendencies immediately, jumping from the figuration she had previously espoused into a series of abstract charcoals on paper that achieve an astonishing spectrum of sensual effects.

The show’s first two galleries, filled with a variety of the latter, are just the extraordinarily complex tip of this exploratory iceberg. What distinguishes these works from O’Keeffe’s later oeuvre is her liberation from the need to establish a sense of physical space. They also exemplify a sumptuous quality that oil painting cannot capture. The range of drawing approaches is astonishing. Early Abstraction (1915) borrows from the aesthetic of mechanical processes, similar to the work of Fernand Lger. Meanwhile, chronologically proximate works reveal the allusive, rather than the purely graphic, potential of their medium, as in No. 20-From Music-Special, in which looping, clumsy forms are juxtaposed with soft, feathery strokes. Watercolors Blue No. I (1916) and Portrait-W-No. II rely on pigmented bleeds and relatively few gestures for impact: There is boldness in their simplicity.

The early oils in the third room, all made before 1920, seem already a bit less unrestrained materially, though compositionally they are the most inventive, relying on basic central forms that seem heavily symbolic—a device that reappears frequently throughout O’Keeffe’s oeuvre. These pieces combine an uninhibited use of color with undulating and often delightfully illogical spatial constructions. After the critical reaction to her 1921 show at Anderson Gallery in New York stereotyped her work as an expression of female sexuality, she moved to more subdued colors and representational space.

O’Keeffe’s early works can certainly be read as sexual, though the fact that she showed them alongside a number of erotic portraits of her taken by her future husband, artist and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, probably accounts for the pigeonholing she suffered. Still, to see her, like some do, as a victim of her situation—an artist constrained by the expectations placed on her sex, a woman controlled by her influential husband—would be a mistake.

Much later in life, O’Keeffe would return to the affect of nature’s terrible beauty, allowing wide swaths of fiery hues and aching blues to stand in for the earth and gaping sky of her beloved New Mexican landscape. These works echoed the freedom from representation evident in her earliest works, and in reintroducing us to that aspect of O’Keeffe’s career, this show reveals a very different side to the famous artist we thought we always knew.

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