Sunday, June 7, 2009

Sunday at SF MOMA

Today, I went to see the various shows at SFMOMA. So many people have written about the Robert Frank show that I don't think I have anything new to add. The photographers that I respect the most are the ones who were politically progressive, starting with Jacob Riis and his images of the urban poor in turn-of-the-century New York, continuing through Walker Evans, Paul Strand and Margaret Bourke White - all of whom produced what are now iconic and critical images of America. I appreciated the display of his working materials and the acknowledgement of his influences. But it's a pity that the gallery didn't display his photos in the sequence he intended in his book, The Americans; that might have given it a loose narrative sequence and more of an emotional punch.
But the show that just knocked me over was the show comparing the affinities between Georgia O'Keefe and Ansel Adams. Our local art critic had slyly panned O'Keefe for what some other critics saw as the sexual symbolism in her work and for having the burden of being seen as a feminist icon - something which she rejected. However, I fail to see why this means her work is somehow lesser; surely she's not responsible for what the critics say. But, since she is commercially overexposed, I wasn't expecting much. I was wrong. In person, her art is still memorable with startling combinations of size and color, a disciplined painterly technique and a unique artistic sensibility. Even her very smallest works - and there are many in the show - display her emphatic color and delicate brush work combined with striking compositions. The best of her works cross over to abstraction ("that dream thing," as O'Keeffe called it), and then loop back to the figurative, engaging the imagination on many different levels.
In search of the marvelous, she advised Russell Vernon Hunter, "Try to paint your world as though you are the first man looking at it-The wind and the licat-and the cold-The dust-and the vast starlit night ..

Ignore the critics; she's been a target since the beginning and the current review in the Chron is no exception. Instead, go and marvel at her wonder, her razor-sharp vision, and her response to that vision and be astonished. The show is the largest one of her works that I've seen in years and contains many pieces from private collections which are not normally on view.

Oh, and look at the photos by Ansel Adams as well. A close look will reveal that there are, indeed, affinities between the two. It's a show worth the extra surcharge to get in.

Another great review up at Civic Center:


Zoomie said...

I'm looking forward to this show, once the crowds have died down a bit. Did they include their own O'Keefe, that charming little one with a streak of green among the "hills?"

Eva said...

What puzzles me is why would it be so terrible if indeed the work was about sex. Men have been painting naked women for centuries - calling them nudes of course. I do think it's possible for a artist to make things and be in complete denial as to what they are about. Not to say that the critics are right but just that the viewer completes the piece and we can see it however we want. But if indeed the paintings are about the female body, well, so what. The female body has been front and center in the history of art from the very beginning.

namastenancy said...

Eva - yes, I've always wondered that myself. But maybe because it's a woman painting images that could be seen as sexual that annoys the critics. Now, if it were a man, that's OK because so many men want to control female sexuality but for a woman - especially a strong one like O'Keefe - to have such control was seen as threatening. Baker, our local art critic, seems to have a serious problem with women artists but I thought his comment was even more idiotic than usual.

namastenancy said...

Zoomie - I don't remember that one. I was jotting down titles so that I could look for the images but that's not on my list. Unfortunately, there aren't that many images of O'Keefe's work on the Internet; the poster shops have scarfed up the copyright on them and made them inaccessible unless you buy. I really resent seeing another artist's work with a huge "COPYRIGHT" on it; if they are so darn concerned about making money, they can provide small images that can't be commercially reproduced.

Zoomie said...

It hangs in the first or second gallery in the permanent collection rooms. Maybe they just left it there although it would have been interesting to see it hung next to an Adams landscape with mountains or hills. It's one of my faves in the permanent rooms.