Georgia O’Keeffe, “modernized” by MoMA

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In the spring of 1946, the Museum of Modern Art organized its first solo exhibition by a female artist: a retrospective devoted to the work of the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. By this time, O’Keeffe (1887-1986) had been showing regularly in New York for three decades, the only female (and most marketable) member of the coterie of talent centered around the prominent art dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz – who was also her lover and then her husband.

O’Keeffe’s success was largely due to Stieglitz’s promotion, especially his eroticized reading of her paintings of landscapes and semi-abstract flowers as expressions of female sexuality. He established that sexuality as O’Keeffe’s by exhibiting some of the many intimate photographs he had taken of her nude or partially nude in 1921 at the Anderson Galleries. By 1929, O’Keeffe was quite well off, thanks to Stieglitz’s efforts.

But nearly 80 years after O’Keeffe’s MoMA retrospective, the museum didn’t pay much attention to her. The Modern was swept into the post-war period on the wave of abstract expressionism; it was in the market for Pollocks and de Koonings. Since 1946, O’Keeffe holding companies has slowly risen to 13 works, including five from the artist’s foundation and bequest in the mid-1990s.

But things are changing, and change brings “Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time” to MoMA — a show by about 120 works on paper and eight paintings from 1915 to 1964 — along with some course correction. The museum wants to increase the representation of female artists from the past and present. It also needs to tone down its vaunted concentration on European modernism by acquiring works from non-Europeans or shifting its focus to those it already owns. This includes the early 20th century American modernists – especially those of the Stieglitz circle – whose efforts the museum has too often displayed near its escalators or elevators until recently.

Now, MoMA aims to establish O’Keeffe’s modernist bona fides by defining her penchant for repetitive imagery—landscapes, flowers, West Texas canyons, portraits, female nudes, evening stars—as a “serial practice.” (Most artists repeat images continuously, but not in series.) Such ‘seriality’, if you will, was a means by which she pushed her motifs towards abstraction, or explored different materials, mainly charcoal, watercolor and pastel. To that end, the show is bringing together several sets of related images — some for the first time in decades — which, of course, have their own rewards.

“Serial practice” is usually reserved for the repetitive forms or strategies of minimalism or conceptual art. Here the term seems contrived or forced, as if it were needed as a seal of approval for O’Keeffe’s entry into the modern pantheon. It narrows the view of O’Keeffe’s achievement, rearranging familiar elements rather than reshaping them.

Hosted by Samantha Friedman, a MoMA curator, and Laura Neufeld, a paper curator, this show has a chronological installation and a somewhat fragmented, scattered effect. The groupings of two to five and sometimes more related works seem to reflect a short attention span or an abundance of ideas and reactions on the part of the artist. Some groups are much better than others, which is usually the case with O’Keeffe. The installation makes its way through two large rooms, the first of which – where the works range from 1915 to 1918 – is noticeably stronger than the second, which covers the period 1922 to 1964.

On one side of the successful reunions are three almost identical, linear, albeit radical compositions from 1916: executed in charcoal, black watercolor and blue watercolor respectively. Titled “First Drawing of the Blue Lines,” “Black Lines,” and “Blue Lines X,” these works feature prominently in the show’s opening gallery and are some of the most stripped-down motifs in Western Modernism, making O’ Keeffe got a place in his history. They can be seen as formal predecessors of the vertical lines, called ‘zippers’, with which the abstract expressionist Barnett Newman divided his areas of color in the 1950s and 1960s. But nature is rarely absent from O’Keeffe’s motifs; the lines can also evoke long thin waterfowl, eg herons.

Another reunion of three works goes to the opposite extreme in style and skill: O’Keeffe’s three superbly realistic charcoal portraits and one pastel, of the handsome head and soft features of the outstanding American painter Beauford Delaney, from 1943. Any serial way? Not really. O’Keeffe appears to be entranced by Delaney; her portraits of him exude a warmth that is not often expressed so openly in her work.

Also reunited for the first time, in the first gallery, are seven of the artist’s radiant 1917 “Evening Star” watercolors, in broad bands of primarily red, yellow, and blue. (MoMA owns one of the best, which is heavily used in the show’s advertising.) In this, O’Keeffe starts with a simple horizon, activates the sky with a yellow star in a red-orange ring, then explores the blurring effects of watercolor . In an eighth, “Evening Star,” the hazy landscape begins to resemble a woman’s leg and sets the stage for eight softened watercolor renderings of stout female nudes on the adjacent wall.

There are remarkable surprises, both serial and singular. One of the earliest charcoal drawings in the show is a single untitled 1915 image of a lone tree or plant standing on a small hilltop pedestal overlooking a distant horizon. It nods to Art Nouveau, but also reflects Caspar David Friedrich’s isolated figures (or crosses) at the edge of the sea. It expresses O’Keeffe’s preference for solitude and vast landscapes of the American Southwest, which she first experienced while teaching in the Texas Panhandle in 1912-1914, again in 1916-1918, and then in New Mexico, which she often visited and where she lived full-time after Stieglitz’s death in 1946.

Two unknown series of small pencil sketches in display cases have an exciting immediacy. Eight drawings from 1916-1917 trace the slopes, plateaus and ravines of Palo Duro Canyon in West Texas, in curved and oblique lines and small semicircles for desert scrub. Later, six drawings from 1956 provide an awe-inspiring response to the smooth fronts, curved corners and imaginative forms of the magnificent dry stone walls of Sacsayhuamán, the Inca citadel near Cuzco, Peru.

The O’Keeffe catalog, with its staggering wealth of art, makes two opposing points about the MoMA show. One is that there are several works whose inclusion would have shown evolution in certain groups, reinforcing the curators’ idea of ​​O’Keeffe’s “serial practice.”

The other is that the catalog raisonné presents a more diverse, less restrained, and more disturbing O’Keeffe than is generally known—in turn, expressionist, akin to folk art, or otherwise idiosyncratic. Some museum should be careful and wrestle that O’Keeffe against its walls. But it takes a certain amount of guts, a taste for visual impact and a reinvention of connoisseurship that few museums seem to be able to accommodate these days.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Seeing takes time

Through August 12 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, Manhattan; (212) 708-9400; mom.org.

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