Georgia O’Keeffe: The Reluctant Icon

Georgia O’Keeffe stars in her largest retrospective outside of her home country

Most people first get to know Georgia O’Keeffe through her voluptuous flower paintings: large, generous images in lustrous colors – of irises, poppies or lilies, blossoms whose sensual curving petals fold back to reveal the pollen-coated stamens within. The focus is sharp, the edges delineated, in an opulent hyperrealism that is also soft, honoring the structure of nature yet also transforming it.

Towering over 20th century American art, O’Keeffe is, along with Frida Kahlo, one of the few women artists to become a household name, making the current major retrospective at the Kunstforum all the more welcome. The show, which comes to Vienna from the Tate Modern in London, is the largest exhibition of the artist’s work outside the U.S.

Georgia O'Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe // © Alfred Stieglitz (National Gallery of Art)

In addition to her iconic flowers, some of O’Keeffe’s best work is on display, including early abstracts in charcoal, edgy night scenes of 1920s Manhattan, vivid cubist foliage at Lake George, N.Y. and evocative, imagistic landscapes of the American southwest. In each setting, O’Keeffe explored the boundaries between naturalism and abstraction, believing each fundamental to the other.

“Objective painting is not good … unless it is good in the abstract sense,” she said. The natural thing in itself is not art. “It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something.”

Over a career spanning seven decades in a life that lasted nearly a century, the range and presence of O’Keeffe’s work cemented her reputation as an eminent figurehead of American Modernism and feminism – sometimes reluctant but always recognizable.

Georgia O'Keeffe
Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, Edward C. Robison III. // © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Protégée and muse

The current exhibition takes its pioneering role seriously and walks visitors through a sort of illustrated biography of the artist’s life. Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin in 1887, we trace O’Keeffe’s influences at the Art Institute of Chicago, the Arts Students League of New York and, decisively, the ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia University, who emphasized individuality, freedom of expression and compositional harmony rather than imitation of nature.

Her career really began when a friend, Anna Pollitzer, showed O’Keeffe’s drawings to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whose Manhattan gallery was at the epicenter of the early modernist scene. Stieglitz was looking for a female artist and included her work in a group show at his 291 gallery, opening May 23, 1916, about a year later on April 3, 1917, her first solo exhibition followed. Convinced of her talent, he took her on as a protégée, freeing her to paint full-time. It was the defining relationship of her life and would remain so until his death in 1946.

Georgia O'Keeffe
Oriental Poppies // © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Bildrecht, Wien, 2016

Stieglitz was also looking for a muse for himself, and photographed her intensively, often in front of her work, cropping her face or often nude body. Influenced by the writings of Sigmund Freud, Stieglitz saw her work as an expression of female sexuality. He wasn’t alone, as the exhibition makes clear from the leading reviews of the time. It was not a role she sought, and as early as 1924 she was already shifting gears to distance herself from the art critics.

An artist of her times

Georgia O'Keeffe
New York, Night |© Sheldon Museum of Art, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Bildrecht, Wien, 2016

Throughout her life, O’Keeffe was undeniably the right artist in the right place at the right time. From being a darling of the early modernist movement in 1920s New York, she also became, along with contemporaries Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth, one of the emblematic artists of mid-century America, seeing the structural simplicity in natural settings and revealing an austere truth about the national character.

Still, the Freudian analysis of her work was something she could never escape. The 1970s again saw her in vogue as a figurehead of American feminism, her flowers’ vaginal unfolding were seen as quintessentially female. Artist Judy Chicago gave her a prime place at her “Dinner Party” of famous women, a performance artwork at the Brooklyn Museum from 1974-79. Female sexuality was something to be gloried in, the feminists were saying, rather than a source of shame to be hidden from the world.

Still, the feminist appropriation of her art enraged O’Keeffe, according to art historian Randall Griffin. “I am not a woman painter!” she insisted. Like her inspiration Arthur Wesley Dow, she felt that a painting’s “form and color are its real thematic contents.”

O’Keeffe wanted others to see what she saw: “Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time.” Painting that flower on a huge scale “you could not ignore its beauty.”

 

 

Through Mar 24, Kunstforum

 

Dardis McNamee
Dardis McNamee is the Editor in Chief of Metropole. She has written for The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler (NYC), the Wall Street Journal Europe and Die Zeit in Vienna, as well as having been a speechwriter to two U.S. ambassadors to Austria. She was awarded the 2007 Kemper Award for Excellence in Teaching (Media & Communications).

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