Georgia O'Keeffe's flower power

Paintings, drawings and sculpture on exhibit in D.C. show that the artist was truly an innovator in modern American art.

May 16, 1999|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

Nothing is less real than realism," Georgia O'Keeffe once said. "Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things."

For O'Keeffe, the "real meaning" of things lay in the experience of objects revealed through color and form. It was a credo that she followed throughout a long career that embraced the birth of American modernism and has now inspired the Phillips Collection's engaging "Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things," an exhibition of 69 paintings, drawings and sculpture that runs through July 18.

O'Keeffe today is a somewhat paradoxical figure. She has been both beloved and belittled, and in each case largely for the wrong reasons. Along with the painter Marsden Hartley, she is indisputably one of the great pioneers of modernism in American art. Yet critics in the 1940s dismissed her as a backward-looking "lady flower painter" because she was a woman in a field dominated by men and because her work remained representational when the avant-garde in America was moving toward abstract expressionism. Likewise, since the 1970s O'Keeffe has been resurrected as a feminist icon. But she would have vigorously resisted feminist interpretations of her work.

Phillips curator Elizabeth Hutton Turner has organized this show to demonstrate the sources of O'Keeffe's modernism in Asian art and in the cultural ferment of New York during the decade between 1910 and 1920. The show argues persuasively that O'Keeffe stubbornly stuck to representation partly to sustain the connection with her viewers and partly because she believed fervently that presenting the "thing itself" was basic to the aesthetic process.

O'Keeffe, who is said to have declared her intention to be an artist at the age of 12, was born in Sun Valley, Wis., in 1887. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Student's League in New York, then worked briefly as a commercial artist before becoming an art teacher in Virginia and Texas. Nothing in these experiences suggested the turn her career would later take.

From 1907 to 1908 she studied under William Merritt Chase, who was also Hartley's teacher, and won a prize for her painting "Dead Rabbit with Copper Pot" (1908), which opens the Phillips show. It is a traditional still life in the style of French painter Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. It competently renders the textures and chiaroscuro, but looks nothing like her mature work.

O'Keeffe herself probably considered the early style a dead end; she gave up painting for four years after the rabbit picture. It was only after coming under the influence of Arthur Dow (1857-1922), whose methods she studied during a summer course at the University of Virginia in 1912, that she began to discover the true direction her art was to take.

Dow had been a student of Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908), the first curator of Asian art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. From Fenollosa, Dow developed an aesthetic philosophy that rejected representation as the primary purpose of art. Realism was "the death of art," he told his students.

Composition, not imitation, was Dow's gospel, and he urged students to learn "to fill spaces beautifully" with harmonious structures that grew out of their own emotional and spiritual responses. Dow considered the aesthetic experience both universal and democratic, an engine for societal change that could bring out the creative potential of everyone.

Dow's anti-traditionalist approach represented an artistic reawakening for O'Keeffe, who likened his radical ideas to "starting all over new."

"I made up my mind to forget all that I had been taught and to paint exactly as I felt," she declared.

By 1915 she had begun a series of charcoals and watercolors that soon drew notice from the modernist circle around photographer Alfred Stieglitz. The following year, Stieglitz exhibited some of these works in his New York gallery, launching her career as an original voice of American modernism.

Among the Phillips works from this period are the stunningly concise watercolor "Blue Lines X" (1916), which illustrates the amazing technical control of O'Keeffe's brushwork at the time, and the brooding charcoal "Special No. 2" (1915), whose abstract spaces and biomorphic forms anticipate her flower paintings of the 1920s. During this time, she was also creating small abstract sculptures and struggling toward a re-invented conception of color along the formalist lines suggested by Dow.

O'Keeffe gave up teaching in 1918 and moved to New York. There she continued to work in watercolor and oil paint. She had her first one-woman show in 1923, and the following year she married Stieglitz, cementing a creative collaboration that was to have a profound effect on both artists.

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