A fantastically fresh look at Georgia O'Keeffe
NEW YORK — The best antidote to the problem of hagiography — to the biographical, critical and celebrity pablum that dilutes the impact of works by Vincent van Gogh, Frida Kahlo or Pablo Picasso — is to mount exhibitions of these artists' works on paper. It's on paper, after all, that artists take the most risks; on paper that they make their key discoveries; and on paper that they reveal their most authentic selves. Better yet, works on paper are relatively inexpensive, so you can usually look without the neon pulse of dollar signs impeding your vision.
The works on paper approach worked brilliantly at the Museum of Modern Art's jewel-like "Cézanne Drawing" show in 2021. The museum has successfully rekindled the magic in a new show, "Georgia O'Keeffe: To See Takes Time." Like that earlier exhibit, this one takes us to the molten core of a great artist's genius, restoring our curiosity about a body of work that is too often checked off as a known quantity.
The show is not especially big, but it is intensely absorbing. It brings together not just individual masterpieces but, more subtly, the many series of works O'Keeffe made in response to the same subjects. Works in the same series, sometimes in different media, are hung together in discrete arrangements. The results are beautiful themselves and at the same time immensely revealing about the artist's process.
The show's emotional ambiance — an almost breathtaking alloy of immediacy and intimacy — gave me a renewed appreciation for O'Keeffe's courage.
It's not that I had forgotten, exactly. The indelible photos of a young O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz, her champion and lover, long ago sealed the O'Keeffe legend, announcing to the world the singular force of her personality, and particularly her bravery. But this show deftly plucks this familiar trait from the supersaturated solution in which it is usually immersed (her biography, her legend) and deposits it in the one that really matters: her working process. The resulting crystallization is revelatory.
The show does contain a few paintings, but its primary focus is on O'Keeffe's watercolors, her pastels and her drawings in pencil and charcoal. This is a show tailored to artists, because it is about distinctions between media. It focuses on O'Keeffe's modest but always restless experiments with what charcoal, watercolor, pencil and pastel can be made to do and what they do by themselves. And it takes us so deeply and swiftly into these questions that the rest of us are flattered into thinking we might be artists ourselves.
The show opens with six versions of "Evening Star," one of O'Keeffe's most famous motifs. Looking at them in the sequence in which they were made, it's clear some kind of evolution is taking place. Bands of earth and sky suggesting a straightforward landscape are quickly supplanted by abstract concentric rings separated by thin white lines — the untouched paper.
The evening star, you register, is gradually stealing the show, swelling and pulsing as it magnetizes lines of force and feeling. But, if anything, the images get less lucid as the evolution proceeds. Succumbing to something closer to entropy than evolution, the watercolor starts to puddle and bruise. The lines in reserve disappear. And in the final work, all becomes amorphous and opalescent instead of crystalline and distilled.
Laura Neufeld, the paper conservator who organized the show with curator Samantha Friedman and curatorial assistant Emily Olek, notes that in the latter stage of the series, O'Keeffe turned to "incredibly absorbent Japanese paper." The result, she says, is that "the paint just soaks immediately into it so that you get these soft transitions of diffuse color, creating that ethereal effect."
Why did O'Keeffe return to the same subjects? The obvious answer is that she was involved in a process of distillation, of abstraction. Much like Matisse, whose evolving treatments of the same subjects underpinned a similarly powerful exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2012-13, O'Keeffe wanted to take real-world motifs and reduce them to essential, archetypal forms, unencumbered by the fuss, overlap and discord of reality. She wanted her works to feel closer in spirit to music. Above all, she wanted to charge them with intensified feelings.
Both O'Keeffe and Matisse were influenced by the philosophy of Henri Bergson, especially his ideas about "Creative Evolution." Bergson believed in a process of evolution in which both the workings of intuition and a subjective experience of time he called "duration" played a vital part. Bergson was an enormous influence on early-20th-century modernist aesthetics, and it would not be wrong to read the show's title, "To See Takes Time," in the context of his ideas of duration.
But O'Keeffe, in the end, wasn't carrying out a philosopher's program. Nor was she following a recipe, like a French chef making a great sauce reduction. She was an artist involved in an open-ended process. And there were many, many reasons she did "the same thing over and over again," as she put it in a letter to her friend, Anita Pollitzer.
Sometimes, writes curator Friedman in a catalogue essay that quotes liberally from O'Keeffe's correspondence, the artist was driven forward by dissatisfaction. ("It looks rotten. I'm going to start all over again tomorrow.") Other times, it was because she was enjoying herself. ("Anita - it seems I never had such a good time.") She might also repeat a motif to discover why she was working from it at all. ("I guess I'll only find out by slaving away at it") or simply because she was in the grip of "a fever for painting and drawing ... a sort of a mania."
Fun, obsession, discovery, dissatisfaction - these are all legitimate motives for creativity, and they all played their part in O'Keeffe's development. Almost nothing about her process was programmatic or predetermined. Rather, what emerges from this show is a sense of O'Keeffe's enduring impulse to look and look again, her dauntless drive to convert what she saw into an authentic personal vision.
O'Keeffe played piano and violin, and her early works were undoubtedly informed by her musicality. Musicians, curatorial assistant Olek rightly notes in the exhibition's audio guide, are often taught to visualize notes or sounds.
And in O'Keeffe's early charcoals, she seems to have tried to get similar "visualizations" on paper. Large circular forms that might suggest swelling sounds are interrupted by smaller curves, suggesting rhythmic breaks. The shapes and physicality of musical instruments could be as evocative to her as the sounds they produced, and throughout her career she returned - unconsciously, she said - to forms that resemble the scroll of a violin.
But those scroll-like shapes, which repeat throughout the show, also resemble the curving bands of "Evening Star" or a curled-up fetus in utero or a cyclone or a whirlpool. For O'Keeffe, suggestion was all. She was inviting us to see all these things, or none of them. Either way, her invitation opened onto a deeper unity.
Some of the show's loveliest moments see her operating in more conventional, figurative modes. She used watercolor to render the bunched petals and leaves of a red canna lily; charcoal and then pastel to render the head of the artist Beauford Delaney; and blue and pink watercolor to render her own naked body in a superb series toward the end of the show.
O'Keeffe had to navigate varieties of sexism that were in some ways worse than in preceding eras. Evolution had been a preoccupation since well before Bergson. Misunderstandings of Darwinism, widely promulgated in the art world, had entrenched the idea that women's brains were unsuited to high-level creativity. Such arguments provoked robust counters, but many of these were equally grounded in simplistic, essentialist nonsense.
O'Keeffe knew that spurious stories about her female sensibility, including Freudian interpretations of her work as expressing repressed female eroticism, had helped establish her reputation. This was largely because of Stieglitz, whose influence on the reception of modern art was unrivaled at the time.
Without disavowing his crucial support, O'Keeffe had to fight her entire life to break the intensely gendered, sexualized lens through which her work was seen. She wanted it seen on its own terms. Looking at her works on paper is the perfect way to do just that.
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"Georgia O'Keeffe: To See Takes Time," through Aug. 12 at the Museum of Modern Art, New York; moma.org.
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