Editors' pick

Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction


Editorial Review

Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit at Phillips goes beyond flowers to abstract art

By Eric Banks
Saturday, February 20, 2010

O'Keeffe? Of course, you might knowingly nod -- you know the work. Few American artists have the branding power and recognizable logo to match that of Georgia O'Keeffe. Any large-scale exhibition of work from the artist's very long and very visible career -- and by the end of the 1920s, with five decades ahead of her, she was already newsstand famous and bankably blue-chip -- has to contend with this overfamiliarity. In the case of "Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction," that box-office moment was delayed as record snowfall postponed the show's scheduled opening at the Phillips Collection by nearly a week.

The delay is especially ironic given the sunny glow of the works in the exhibition. The organizers of the show, which traveled to the Phillips following a run at the Whitney Museum in New York, don't flinch from the crowd-pleasing baseline fact of the painter's reputation. However, this cunning survey of the Wisconsin-born artist's early work forcefully yet gracefully makes its case for seeing a museum-friendly face through the fresh focus on her early abstraction. The O'Keeffe here is at once welcomely familiar and utterly original.

Few exhibitions can aspire to the curatorial clarity of "Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction," which includes more than 100 paintings and works on paper, preponderantly from the mid-1910s to the early 1930s, when O'Keeffe decamped from the East Coast for New Mexico and retreated into her arid realism of rams' skulls and desert wildflowers. The about-face of that break is all the more stunning given how consummately she had developed as an abstract painter by the end of the '20s. Despite working with slightly fewer paintings than the Whitney show, the Phillips exhibition more tightly flaunts O'Keeffe's mastery of her idiosyncratic vocabulary, served up with her throat-clearing directness of signature bursting color and undulating form.

There are plenty of O'Keeffe's flower paintings in the Phillips show, from the severely cropped vertical studies of corn plants from 1924 to the masterpiece maroon-and-deep-green suite of jack-in-pulpit paintings from 1930, but they're undergirded by her purer studies of form and radiant palette. We reflexively think of O'Keeffe as drawing her strength as a painter from some sense of nature that was, well, preternatural; the Phillips exhibition turns that assumption on its head, demonstrating how her vibrant abstractions prepped her for her exuberant floral portraits. It was the abstractions that pumped the life into her still lifes.

Unsubtle intensity

O'Keeffe hit her stride early. The works in charcoal from the mid-1910s pack economic but graphic little jabs that her strongest paintings, with the same punchy directness, will likewise uncoil. The basic motifs show up, too: a staff-shaped tendril form topped with a big bold swoop in the 1916 "No. 12 Special" reappeared two years later in the swirling rainbow waves of the "Series 1" canvases, the first works in oil in the show.

O'Keeffe's all-or-nothing concentration of means -- a very modernist reduction -- accounts for the peculiarly unsubtle intensity of most of the works on view. One of the odder aspects of these very subjective paintings is their strangely impersonal surfaces, a result of the effort that O'Keeffe put into achieving her organic intensity. For all the teeming energy of her painted forms, O'Keeffe herself seems totally absent. (You'll search in vain for any signs of brushstrokes.)

Stieglitz's influence

The past-is-prologue aspect of the early charcoals has a second sense in the Phillips show. They were the means of introduction to her future husband, the photographer and impresario of American modernism Alfred Stieglitz.

The relationship that developed between Stieglitz and O'Keeffe is one of the most told stories of modern art -- that of the Svengali dealer whose encouragement brought her from a teaching career in Texas, Virginia and South Carolina to a studio in New York, where soon they became lovers. The nude portraits he made of O'Keeffe, who frequently posed in the studio with her work as the backdrop, occupy a corridor in the middle of the Phillips show. Their impact on the critical reception of her early work is obvious -- whether writers saw her paintings as a thinly disguised erotic theater of primal gymnastics or as the ineffable expression of a fecund, womanly emotion, it became impossible to look at the work without seeing the celebrity lady libertine of the Stieglitz images.

O'Keeffe expressed again and again her horror at how her work was being interpreted, and her move westward corresponds neatly with her break with the photographer, who died in 1946. Several canvases show O'Keeffe bristling against the very virtuosity of her achieved style, particularly the severely vertical "Line and Curve" and "Abstraction White," both from 1927. In these works, she abandons the organic richness and modulated explosions of pinks, greens and yellows for stern geometric rigidity in subtle hues of gray, dirty white and cornflower blue. But the Phillips show has a tendency to slather the effect of their relationship on her work a little thick, a rare curatorial misstep in a show that takes patient pains to present the facts of O'Keeffe's paintings on their own, on-the-canvas terms.

At its most indulgent, reading the wall texts, you might wonder if one myth (the biographical) has simply displaced another (the biological) as the big story behind O'Keeffe's career. The impulse is most egregious in the final room of the show, which features a fascinating pair of paintings from the early 1960s "Above the Clouds" series.

The works take their cue from the perspective view one might see out an airplane window but become a curious exercise in painterly flatness, the white nimbuses butting up along the faint horizon line to form a wall of virtual puffy bricks. It might put you in mind of Guston, but the wall label quickly redirects your attention to Stieglitz's own photographs of clouds. Somewhat annoyingly, the kid stays in the picture.

Happily, "Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction" is savvy enough to triumph over these rare infelicities. Just keep your eye on the intelligently installed canvases, and you'll meet an O'Keeffe more interesting than you've ever known.