Abstract Thoughts: “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” at the Phillips Collection

"I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at,” Georgia O’Keeffe once said of her abstract works, “not copy it." Famous for her images of flowers, shells, animal bones, and other recognizable objects, O’Keeffe also ventured into the world of abstraction, often pushing the envelope of representation beyond the identifiable but still remaining tethered, however distantly, to the real world. Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction at the Phillips Collection explores just how undervalued O’Keeffe still is today as a groundbreaking figure in American abstract art.

During her training as an art teacher at the turn of the twentieth century, O’Keeffe imbibed much of the aesthetic of the Arts and Crafts movement that dominated the period. At just 28 years of age, that art teacher exhibited a series of abstract charcoal drawings that sprung from her innermost emotions and simultaneously catapulted her to the front lines of abstract art in America, which still lagged behind Europe in that regard. O’Keeffe “built a radical abstraction on the foundations of a decorative arts aesthetic that emerged in opposition to the modernity associated with industrialization,” writes Barbara Haskell in the catalogue. The male-dominated world of technology (and technological warfare) thus came face to face with a feminized (and feminist) response that used natural, organic forms to express human emotion. The warm, human passion of O’Keeffe abstractions stared down the cold mechanism of modernism and refused to blink.

From that monochromatic beginning, O’Keeffe soon blossomed into color with works such as 1918’s Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (pictured). “The meaning of a word—to me—is not as exact as the meaning of a color,” O’Keeffe said in 1976. “Colors and shapes make a more definitive statement than words.” Elizabeth Hutton Turner calls for a reconsideration of O’Keeffe in the context of Kandinsky and Mondrian, among others. Turner asks us to see O’Keeffe’s abstraction and all “abstraction early in the twentieth century not as a style or a movement but as a method—call it a practice of perception—within a dynamically new spatial area.” O’Keeffe, like Kandinsky and Mondrian, reaches for musical analogues when words fail to match the expressiveness she finds in colors and shapes alone.

Another analogue for O’Keeffe’s body of abstract work was her body itself—as seen through the interpretive lens of Alfred Stieglitz’s nude photography of the artist. First O’Keeffe’s greatest champion and soon her lover, Stieglitz photographed and cropped images of O’Keeffe’s body to the point of abstraction. Stieglitz’s photographs augment the abstract works in the exhibition to recreate what the catalogue calls the “symbiosis” between them. His photos “offered O’Keeffe insight into the formal possibilities of cropping and its attendant transformation of objective subject matter into subjective expressions.” In return, O’Keeffe inspired Stieglitz and pushed him to further photography as an artistic medium in America. The profoundly abstract and erotic nude photography of Edward Weston originates in the O’Keeffe-Stieglitz partnership, just as the sexual component of American abstraction begins with O’Keeffe herself. Stieglitz’s sensational photos spawned the idea of O’Keeffe as a sex symbol, more specifically an artist of female sexuality.

Sadly, that freed female sexuality soon became a cage. Barbara Buhler Lynes describes O’Keeffe’s “uneasy peace” with her abstract art and the sexual—usually Freudian—readings given to it. Given a choice in later years over what works would appear in her exhibitions, O’Keeffe increasingly chose to downplay these abstract works in favor of more recognizable and, perhaps, less sexually readable images. Critics such as Clement Greenberg came to define abstraction in the 1940s in more masculine terms with the rise of Jackson Pollock and the Abstract Expressionists. Greenberg targeted O’Keeffe in negative reviews as what abstraction and American art were definitely not—merely “pseudo-modern” and not full-blooded modernism in the vein of Jack the Dripper. A woman scorned, O’Keeffe took her abstractions underground as she moved to the American Southwest and lived out her last years as the painter of animal skulls and barren, but beautiful landscapes.

Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction brings those works to the surface again, resexualizing abstract art and restoring the early days of American abstract art history. In this show of 100 paintings, drawings, and watercolors ranging from those first charcoals of 1915 to the Technicolor works of the 1970s, O’Keeffe’s abstract ideas come out of the desert of obscurity and find an oasis of understanding.

 [Image: Georgia O’Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, 1918. Oil on canvas, 35 x 29 1/8 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Gift of Emily Fisher Landau in honor of Tom Armstrong, 91.90 (CR 258). © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Sheldan C. Collins]

[Many thanks to the Phillips Collection for providing me with the image above and for a review copy of the catalogue to the exhibition Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction, which runs through May 9, 2010.]

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