O'Keeffe captures life force
Georgia O'Keeffe: Nature and Abstraction
At the Vancouver Art Gallery until January 13
The American painter Georgia O'Keeffe was as much a figure of legend as a modernist artist of striking originality. Kind of like our own Emily Carr. The natural world was O'Keeffe's spiritual wellspring and the lifelong source of her imagery, again like Carr. O'Keeffe also strove to bring a distinct national character to her style and subject matter. Carr, encore une fois. The analogies between these two great women–one irrevocably identified with the sere landscape of the American Southwest, the other with the dense rain forests of the Northwest Coast–are many. These were evident in 2002, when the Vancouver Art Gallery hosted the touring exhibition Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo. They're revealed again, but as subtext rather than curatorial focus, in the VAG's marvellous new show, Georgia O'Keeffe: Nature and Abstraction.
Organized by the VAG and the Irish Museum of Modern Art and curated by Richard D. Marshall, it comprises 28 paintings and a single bronze sculpture by O'Keeffe. The work ranges across her long career, from a small 1918 abstraction in oil titled Series 1, No. 4 to the 1976–77 abstraction From a Day With Juan II. The earlier painting consists of organic swirls of rich red, yellow, pink, orange, blue, and green. The large, later canvas depicts a monolithic column of graduated greys standing between narrow wedges of intense blue, and was made at a time when the 90-year-old artist's eyesight was failing.
O'Keeffe, who was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887 and died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1986, is popularly associated with up-close depictions of colour-saturated flowers and iconic images of sun-bleached animal skulls floating in the blue sky, high above the red desert. The focus of this exhibition, however, is on her transformation of natural forms into abstract paintings, many of which may be unfamiliar to Vancouver viewers.
The nature-abstraction idea makes a serviceable platform from which to view works both identifiable and obscure. Flowers, shells, animal bones, hillsides, a jagged streak of lightning–all are apparent inspirations here. Among the more obviously representational are Lake George Barns, Pelvis With Distance, and Cliffs Beyond Abiquiu. Looking at what hangs in between, it's clear that the journey from the objective to the nonobjective was not a linear one for O'Keeffe. After studying art in Chicago and New York, she rejected her academic training and gave up painting for a period. When she resumed her true vocation, it was to create abstractions in watercolour, charcoal, and ultimately oil paint. These works were greatly influenced by the artist-academic Arthur Wesley Dow; through him, O'Keeffe was exposed to the ideas behind the musical abstractions of Russian modernist painter Wassily Kandinsky and the spatial economies of Chinese and Japanese brush painting.
After her initial leap into abstraction, O'Keeffe returned to the representational, with works such as 2 Yellow Leaves. An interesting interpretation of this shift is provided by a short documentary film on view at the VAG, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life in Art, by Perry Miller Adato. It suggests that when eminent photographer Alfred Stieglitz–who, not coincidentally, was O'Keeffe's lover, husband, art dealer, and promoter– publicly exhibited nude photographs of O'Keeffe in 1921, critics seized on their sensuality. They then transferred sexual readings of the artist to her abstract paintings. Mortified, O'Keeffe abandoned abstraction for a period, focusing on flowers, leaves, and shells, only to encounter, again, sexual interpretations of her work.
In any age and light, it is difficult to look at Skunk Cabbage, painted in 1922, without thinking of a phallus, or at the folds and fissures in Abstraction, produced in 1926, without making vaginal, labial, and even clitoral analogies. It's difficult to look at them, too, without marvelling at the skill and innovation they represent. Irrespective of subject, O'Keeffe combined the voluptuous and the austere, in an original play of surface and scale. She drew monumentality from her small subjects and intimacy from her large ones. All are unified by a breathing, throbbing life force–again, reminiscent of that seen in the work of Emily Carr.
The Vancouver version of the exhibition includes two bodies of photographs of O'Keeffe, early and late. The first, taken between 1918 and 1933, is by Stieglitz, the undisputed shaper of O'Keeffe's emerging mythic persona. The second series, dated 1957 to 1966, is by Todd Webb and reveals, as VAG senior curator Ian Thom suggested during a recent media tour, the tiny O'Keeffe's firm direction of her own large legend. Emily Carr would have approved.