Saturday, November 16, 2013

Happy Belated Birthday Georgia

 Georgia O'Keeffe (Nov 15, 1887–1986)

Abstraction Rose, 1927

How could I forget O'Keeffe's birthday? She was the first woman artist that I learned about. I still have the collage of images of her and her work that I made as a teenager. I idealized her and her work but that gave me hope that I too could be a "real" painter some day.

 Flower Abstraction, 1924

Later, much later, after reading many biographies of her, I realized that she was not the feminist icon that I had believed. But she was a damn fine painter.

Abstraction 1926

Beginning in the 1920s, her flower paintings made her a popular success. But they emerged from her earlier, more challenging abstract work.

When O’Keeffe was 20 (1907), she came to New York from Virginia to attend the Art Students League. There she studied with William Merritt Chase and followed his conservative painterly lead for a while. Afterward she took teaching jobs far away from the city, but kept her finger on its pulse long-distance.

In 1912 she learned of the aesthetic theory being espoused by Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia University, a utopian vision of a consciousness-shaping art based on harmonious abstract design. Soon afterward, she was introduced to the radical thinking of the New York social critic Randolph Bourne, whose proto-feminist writings were in line with O’Keeffe’s own views of female equality and independence.

 She was working in Amarillo, Tex., in 1913 when the Armory Show hit New York, but on later trips she saw lots of new European work — Picasso, Matisse, Braque — much of it at Stieglitz’s gallery. And she gradually formed stimulating friendships with painters like Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley. Dove, an abstraction pioneer, was particularly encouraging.

She  needed encouragement. Outside of narrow avant-garde circles no audience or market for abstract art existed. In the popular press it was at best dismissed as a scam and at worst reviled as un-American. But O’Keeffe’s stake in it was not commercial or social or formal. Abstraction was simply the only kind of art, she said, that let her express her deepest feelings.

What were those feelings? She couldn’t describe them. “Words and I are not good friends,” she wrote to Stieglitz in an early letter.

It is nearly impossible to talk about the work of either O’Keefe or Stieglitz without mention of the other. The personal and professional union between these two iconoclastic talents lasted for more than a quarter of a century and to this day is considered one of the most fruitful and well-known collaborations of the modernist era. The reality is somewhat different. O'Keeffe felt smothered by Stieglitz and had affairs outside their marriage. So did Steiglitz and while they never divorced, the marriage was, for all intents and purposes, over when she moved to New Mexico.

Stieglitz felt that her work was about the essence of womanhood, about the female body, about sexuality. Stieglitz emphasized that message - and the fact that he, a married man and years older than O'Keeffe was her lover - by his nude photographs of her. She posed in front of her paintings, echoing their forms with her arms and hands. He also photographed her nude body, often in close-up. The photos assured that her art would be viewed in erotic terms - terms which O'Keeffe came to loathe and reject. It's hard to feel that much sympathy for O'Keeffe. Like everything else in her life, she want to define her art herself- and the devil take the hindmost. But who could fail to see the sexual imagery in her flower paintings? She knew and didn't want to admit it publically but the erotic frisson in her work is what made her popular. After all, it was the age of Freud.

Obviously she was a willing collaborator in all of this. She posed for the pictures, helped to process them and applied the cropping and close-up techniques she learned from them to her paintings. She made many of those paintings suggestively sexual. But what was really at stake was power. O’Keeffe wanted the power to include sexuality in her art’s expressive range, without necessarily making it the subject. Stieglitz wanted the power to define her art purely in terms of feminine sexuality, and to market it accordingly.

 Radiator Building, New York, 1927

By the mid-1920s O’Keeffe had painted herself into a corner and knew she had to get out of it. She also understood that her approach to abstraction was part of the problem, and tried to change it, moving from curves to rectangles. A result was a remarkable group of small vertical pictures, inspired by New York.

While O’Keefe’s New York paintings bear a romantic character resembling that of the Romantic movement and its fascination for glowing celestial bodies and halos in mystical colors, her urban works are most closely associated with the American art movement of the 1920′s known as Precisionism, or Cubist Realism, a combination of Cubism and Realism.

Toward the end of the decade, the strains of dealing with the New York art world, her growing boredom with Lake George, and her deteriorating relationship with Stieglitz took their toll on her physical and emotional health. In response, she made her first extended trip to New Mexico in 1929. It was a visit that had a lasting impact on her life, and an immediate effect on her work. Over the next twenty years, from 1929 to 1949, she made almost annual trips to New Mexico, staying up to six months there, painting in relative solitude, then returning to New York each winter to exhibit the new work at Stieglitz's gallery. This pattern continued until she moved permanently to New Mexico in 1949.

Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue, 1931, Oil on canvas; 39 7/8 x 35 7/8 in. (101.3 x 91.1 cm) Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1952 (52.203)

The last two decades of the artist's life were relatively unproductive as ill health and blindness hindered her ability to work. When she died in 1986 at age ninety-eight, her ashes were scattered over the New Mexico landscape she had loved for more than half a century. Her rich legacy of some 900 paintings has continued to attract subsequent generations of artists and art lovers who derive inspiration from these very American images.

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