Poor Georgia O’Keeffe. Death didn’t soften the opinions of the art world toward her paintings. Twenty-three years later, many continue to dismiss her as a prissy painter of pretty pictures -- or, I should say, pretty genitalia. Even when hailed for being "the most famous and highly paid woman artist in America," she gets saddled with a qualifier.
No other figure in American art history went from heights to has-been so quickly. See if these comments, some of them by women, don’t make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Critics wrote of the "great painful and ecstatic climaxes" in the art of "this girl," of how she felt "through the womb," and gave us a "sense of woman’s flesh in martyrdom." Her paintings were said to be a "revelation of the very essence of woman as Life Giver," expressing "dense, quivering, endless life," and "the world as it is known to woman." We read about her "outpouring of sexual juices," "loamy hungers of the flesh" and her art as "one long, loud blast of sex, sex in youth, sex in adolescence, sex in maturity. . . sex bulging, sex tumescent, sex deflated." And those were the admirers! Critic Clement Greenberg, a nonfan, was appalled when the Museum of Modern Art honored O’Keeffe with a retrospective in 1946 -- one of its first solo shows for a woman; her work was "little more than tinted photography." Threatened male artists (sex was their territory!) Edward Hopper and John Sloan were "furious" that she’d been elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1949 and "tried to intervene."
Given that reception, it’s amazing O’Keeffe continued making art until close to her death, at 98. Less surprising is that she did it in relative isolation, spending her last 37 years in New Mexico -- which only added to her mythology and popularity outside the art world.
The Whitney Museum’s revelatory survey of the work that earned O’Keeffe such derision, the evocative, more-or-less abstract art she made starting in 1915 -- phenomenally early for an American artist -- should reopen eyes to an undeniable fact: O’Keeffe produced some of the most original and ambitious art in the 20th century. Her ideas about surface, scale and color are not only daring; they presaged the work of artists as varied as Barnett Newman, Milton Avery, Mark Rothko, Morris Louis and Mary Heilmann, as well as Color Field painting, Lyrical Abstraction and contemporary postmodern abstraction. At her best, she is a formally inventive poetic powerhouse who makes the nonobjective feel mystical, familiar, objective and subjective all at once.
Born poor in 1887 on a farm in Wisconsin, O’Keeffe worked and taught and studied art in Texas, South Carolina, Illinois and Virginia. Just when it appeared she’d be a teacher for the rest of her life, fate stepped in. On New Year’s Day, 1916, without obtaining her permission, a girlfriend showed O’Keeffe’s abstract charcoal drawings to the legendary photographer-proprietor of New York’s great 291 Gallery, Alfred Stieglitz. With his intrepid eye, he instantly recognized her promise; he’d "never seen a woman express herself so fully on paper. . . I wouldn’t mind showing them."
In May, Stieglitz hung ten of her charcoals in a group show. Soon thereafter, she confessed to a friend that she had fallen for the "hot, dark, destructive" (and married) Stieglitz. In 1918, O’Keeffe, 30, moved to New York and within weeks became the 54-year-old Stieglitz’s lover. It was an ardent union, judging from O’Keeffe’s letters to him, one of which described being "on my back -- wanting to be spread wide apart." Whew! That is hot!
As revolutionary as living out of wedlock was in 1918 (the couple married in 1924), a 1921 survey of Stieglitz’s photographs, including 45 pictures of O’Keeffe, many of them nudes, transformed the two of them into the equivalent of an art world Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. Stieglitz said, "When I make a photograph I make love." O’Keeffe, who later recalled the "heat and excitement" of the photo sessions, opined that "nothing like them had come into our world before."
Yet the same nude photos that made Stieglitz famous triggered a backlash against O’Keeffe. Forever after, her work was seen in purely sexual terms. "When people read erotic symbols into my paintings they’re really talking about their own affairs," O’Keeffe said. Still, the sexualized misconceptions of her work devastated her. "I almost wept," she wrote of one review in 1921.
The Whitney’s focused show, carefully organized by curator Barbara Haskell, includes over 125 works and more than a dozen Stieglitz portraits. What strikes you about O’Keeffe’s paintings is their restraint and reticence. And the astounding imagination. The sexuality barely registers -- which makes the show feel strangely defensive, like it’s scared to let O’Keeffe be as weird, mystical and suggestive as she really was. I would have appreciated more of her terrified, tentative retreats from and flirtations with abstraction and nature in the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s; her kind-of-like nature/kind-of-figurative hedged bets of the ‘50s; the oddball flat ‘60s abstractions; the almost-dissipated ‘70s works.
There are naughty bits. But when compared with the work of her closest stylistic contemporary and influence Arthur Dove, it is Dove, not O’Keeffe, who comes off as being "about sex." Dove plays the brooding, physical Walt Whitman of Leaves of Grass to O’Keeffe’s intricate Emily Dickinson. Dove’s touch has sensual weight, animalistic body and shadowy intensity. O’Keeffe’s art is Spartan, Apollonian and cerebral -- structured, layered and faceted like abstract sonnets.
In the first two knockout rooms of the Whitney’s show, Haskell gives us O’Keeffe’s early works on paper and her uncanny ability to conjure indivisible abstract wholes in which all parts are of equal interest and never decorative -- something Donald Judd made good on decades later. Aside from one darkened gallery of Stieglitz’s super-seductive pictures of her (who knew underarm hair could be so titillating?), from the third gallery on, you’re lowered into O’Keeffe’s lapidarian vision, glowing prismatic color and luscious thin surfaces. She never overworks anything; the relationship of her interior forms to external edges feels found yet pure as Pythagorean geometry.
"The men," as she witheringly referred to male contemporaries, tended to paint dark color with gritty surfaces and romantic symbolism. At the Whitney, you see O’Keeffe coaxing brilliant hues onto smooth grounds via colossally magnified, closely cropped, disembodied shapes. At the same time, she’s assimilated Stieglitz’s (and Paul Strand’s) ideas of photography into painting. All these things made her, in her own words, "an outsider." O’Keeffe’s purer color and form, her surreal scale shifts, were as radical for her time as Warhol’s Day-Glo color and pop-culture references were for his. Like Warhol, she was willing to forsake high-minded ideas of what constituted "serious art," and risk being branded with the worst insults the art world could muster: girly, swishy, pretty. O’Keeffe wasn’t afraid of those labels. And as the Whitney show demonstrates, her fearless prettiness is also profound and lyrical -- an eerie, ineffable joy. Fuck sex.
"Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction," Sept. 17, 2009-Jan. 17, 2010, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10021.
JERRY SALTZ is art critic for New York magazine, where this essay first appeared. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.