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Last week I met a friend at AGO with the purpose of seeing the Georgia O’Keefe Exhibition. O’Keefe has been known for her association with erotic flowers that contest the phallic imagery of towers and trees. A female Maplethorpe perhaps. Interestingly the explanations at the side of the paintings dispute those associations. Furthermore, O’Keefe balked at her art being thrown in with the Surrealists. However, with her dislocation and contrasts of size, colour and idea, it is hard not to immediately view her work as being part of the Surrealism surge of that day. 

However, as I am curious, anxious and unsupportive of words that categorize, I can understand how O’Keefe wanted to be seen as a force herself and not lumped in with a trend that categorized her as abstractionist, or realist or landscape painter. Yet, standing up close to one’s art is very different from taking a few steps back and viewing it from the context of Time as we consider artistic waves into which we slot artists, such as Manet as Impressionist or Van Gogh as Expressionist: a disservice to the education, reflection, camaraderie and individual genius of those whose work has risen to the foam at the top of Art, to be labelled the stuff of critical examination.

Although Marcel Duchamp must have shared a huge guffaw with his peers when his Readymades, especially The Urinal was elevated to the status of high art, the thinking behind it is, of course, brilliant, ridiculing the difference between high and low art, poking at the elevation and placement of simple things that have been transformed by the noughts of the critics .And besides a new way of seeing -superficially perhaps, opening the door to ordinary objects removed from their context to be viewed for their own sake in term of shape, texture, colour, design, etc. The driving force behind the Bauhaus that comprehended the intrinsic beauty of functional items that showcased design features that were not merely decorative or extraneous.

Signage at the AGO for O’Keefe showed her as part of photographer Stieglitz ‘s bunch, the brightest and bravest of the day, gathered in New York to paint. Although Stieglitz’ s photographs of O’Keefe ( Torso 1918-19, his portraits) were beautiful, she is depersonalized as long willowy hands and an exquisite body, truncated if admirable parts, not declared as an artist, but just as someone else’s muse. I barely let my eyes slide over those tonal tributes, as they were soft, evocative, rather than the strong artist that O’Keefe was portraying herself to be through her oeuvre. In fact, in five years, Stieglitz had shown over two hundred of her paintings( 1925-29), drawing attention to her talent, and making her a public figure.No doubt, fascinated by her strong separate talent, but no doubt desirous of not being overshadowed by his upstart companion. Subject, not object- this intrepid woman- no matter the subservient beauty.

At one point, again the signage has her rebuffing a quotation that she is the best female artist of the day.She bristles and responds the word ” The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters, clearly underlining, I am an artist so don’t categorize me as a woman first that downplays me in the arena of all people, men or women, who make art. Bold and beautiful as documented in her work.

The erotic and mortal associations she also refutes, explaining she painted what she wanted, whether eggplants, flowers, doors. Suddenly spying a flower that appealed, she popped it next to the elongated horse skull that caught her interest in Horse Skulls with Pink Rose, 1931, exclaiming that it “ looked pretty fine” as a spontaneous arrangement. O’Keefe continued to deny all sexual or metaphysical associations, strongly retorting she painted what she saw( See Georgia O’Keefe.: In the West by Doris Bry and  Nicholas Galloway, 1989).The Freudian theory that her flower paintings were actually close studies of the female vulva were first put forward in 1919 by hubby Stieglitz. Achim Borchardt-Hume, the Tate Modern’s director of exhibitions, said a key reason for hosting the retrospective last year was to offer O’Keeffe the “multiple readings” she had been denied in the past as a female artist.( See Hanna Ellis- Petersen,, Flowers or vaginas? Georgia O’Keeffe( sic) Tate show to challenge sexual cliches, March 2016)
As well, although Black Hills with Cedar, 1941, has been interpreted as a woman’s lower body, O’Keefe explains there were places that drew her in in New Mexico because of their “ lonely feeling” that she returned to over and over again in a range of weathers, valued for their shapes and sense of distance. This is what an artist does, inspired or challenged by something that speaks out to their sensibilities. Ironically, the titillation of sexual metaphors raised the appeal of her art, crowds intuiting something O’Keefe did not envisage in her paintings, but obviously others saw. Long before O’Keefe returned back to the Southwest to paint the siena- coloured houses and flat spaces of sand, artists and writers had been attracted to Taos and Santa Fe in New Mexico. Eventually the distinctive culture and clime would appeal to other artists such as Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper.

Very early in her career ( Music- Pink & Blue No 1, 1918) she foreshadows the pelvis bones that are associated with her painting. The 1918 ones apparently reflected sound waves for O’ Keefe, suggesting undulating forms like notes in a musical composition of tendons, bones and holes.Later Pelvis, 1944 revisits the forms, the play of what is called positive and negative space.
Her palette as well reoccurs with the soft blues and pastels one tends to think of as her colour. Yet the later abstracted doors and strong rectilinear shapes in Black Door with Red, 1954 resonate with the Color Field Artists and connote for me Kenneth Noland or Jules Olitski. But again, to pinpoint O’ Keene as representative of a particular group is to tie a butterfly down as a specimen to a particular genus as opposed to observing its flights among flowers against a dazzling sky. In the same way, Picasso’s passage through a variety of “ styles” do not pinpoint him as either this or that.

My interest in the exhibit also focused on Purple Hills, 1935 because I knew that Lawren Harris had moved close to Abiquiu, New Mexico to be near to O’Keefe and one of her paintings here in the AGO exhibit was very similar to his. This image of purple hills connotes primordial monsters ready to rise up. How wonderful it would have been to be privy to their discussions.
With thoughts to the recent AGO exhibit, I’m not sure about its overall impact as presenting OKeefe fully. Examining it from the end, later pieces, to front, her early works, helped me identify the symbols and abstraction O’Keefe used over time. Somehow the show did not hang together in the same way that Lawren Harris’s did- for me.I wasn’t moved or caught up in the artist’s mind. Perhaps like O’Keefe, who described herself as “ an outsider”, we are kept away from really knowing the artist. I suppose that surface interest of the poppies, the skulls and skies may be enough to consider O’Keefe as accomplished in her own right. The bare facts of her life, her locations described at the edge of the paintings do frame the works- which ultimately must be judged on its own merits. However, the AGO reinforces her isolation rather than expanding her beyond. For many, they will come away from their the exhibit, persisting in their thinking that Okeefes painting is about vaginas.Too bad.

I’ll take another look next month before you  the show closes- aware that the labels that have trapped her should be avoided.

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