Friday, May 19, 2017

Compulsive Spirits – Georgia O'Keeffe: A Retrospective

Red Rust Hills, 1930, by Georgia O'Keeffe.

We are pleased to welcome a new critic, Felicity Somerset, to our group.

"Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done and where I have been that should be of interest.” – Georgia O'Keeffe
I have long been an admirer of the art of Georgia O'Keeffe so I was delighted to have the opportunity to see Georgia O'Keeffe: A Retrospective at Toronto's Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), which opened to the public on Saturday, April 22, 2017. The exhibition was curated and mounted by London's Tate Modern, with tour partners Bank Austria Kunstforum and the Art Gallery of Ontario. It is completing its tour here in Toronto and will be at the AGO until July 30.

As its title suggests, this exhibition is a retrospective of O'Keeffe’s six decades of work. It takes a chronological approach and begins with some early charcoal abstracts from 1917, and includes watercolour paintings and pastels as well as one sculpture. Most of the images are painted in oils. The exhibition ends with some of her late abstracts from the 1950’s and 1960’s. Her place in art history marks her as a leader in American modernist and abstract work and these themes are fully explored in the exhibition.

Throughout the exhibition, the art is illuminated by quotations from O'Keeffe herself. She was forthright and pithy in her comments on her art. For me, these selections of her own words imbued the paintings and drawings with an added sense of meaning. Georgia O'Keeffe was an independent spirit with a compulsion to create, and her personality became part of the commentary that surrounded her work. She resisted some of this commentary: "Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done and where I have been that should be of interest” and “I don’t think it matters what something comes from: it’s what you do with it that counts. That’s when it becomes yours.”

Like many female artists of her time, her work might have languished in obscurity but for the support of Alfred Stieglitz. After he exhibited some of her early charcoal drawings at his gallery 291 in 1917, and after their marriage in 1924, he remained an influential and somewhat looming presence over her work. Through him, she was introduced to the leading artists and thinkers in America at that time. It was largely a male group. The exhibition documents their relationship as having both a positive and negative effect on her work.

Landscape and Abstraction

wThe landscape was O'Keeffe’s enduring inspiration and the locations varied from her early years in Texas to her move to New York and to her final home in New Mexico as well as travels elsewhere. Her intensive engagement with the landscape is key to understanding her work because of the ways in which she translated that engagement. Abstraction was intrinsic and essential to her pieces. And indeed, she was one of the pioneers of abstraction in America. Some of this work was very minimalist. I loved the simplicity of the early charcoal drawings, like 1919's No. 17 – Special; she also employed this minimalist approach in water colour and later, in oil, as with Abstraction (1926). She translated her experience of the landscape into a distillation of simple, strong and perfectly balanced lines. Perhaps the best example in the exhibition is a late abstract, Winter Road (1963), in which she reduced her vision of a road snaking through the landscape to a single line.

The exhibition includes many examples of her more colourful abstract paintings. In her own words, she “found I could say things with color and shapes that I couldn't say any other way – things I had no words for.” The curving and geometrical lines in her compositions are striking. She explores the gradations of a single colour, for example, in Abstraction White Rose (1927), with sinuous and organic lines, or with shades of blue in Abstraction Blue (1927). She is fearless in her amazing combination of colours, and the way in which her colours explode off the canvas, for example in Red Rust Hills (1930). Her colour palette ranges from the very pale to the very dark.

The Flower Paintings and Interpretations of Her Work

In the 1920’s and 1930’s, O'Keeffe painted many flower paintings and continued with this subject until the 1950’s. These paintings are among her best-known works and a number of them are included in this exhibition. They were interpreted at the time as essentially feminine subjects and were seen to represent the exotic and erotic persona that she was thought to embody. Stieglitz played a key role in cultivating this perception. The voluptuousness of Oriental Poppies (1923), and the virginal simplicity of the famous Jimson Weed/White Flower #1 (1932), lend themselves to this interpretation. But she considered them as flower paintings and not as erotic in concept. This reading of her work in terms of her gender and perceived personality extended to many of her flowing and sinuous abstracts and were a factor in the responses to her work from almost the beginning of her career.

In fact, as a woman among a mostly male group of painters and photographers, she resisted being described as a feminine painter. But her frustration over the erotic interpretation of her images only served as a stimulus for her ideas. For a while, she deliberately moved away from the abstract paintings that she was known for, and began to paint what were considered more “masculine” subjects such as skyscrapers in New York.

I was struck by the many parallels with the Canadian painter Emily Carr (1871-1945) as I walked around the exhibition. Although their work is very different, the sweeping, curving lines, the bold use of colour, the impressionist views, and their shared fascination with landscape and indigenous cultures are commonalities between them. They were both independent and free-thinking personalities who made their way through an art world dominated by men. Carr and O'Keeffe did meet in New York in 1930 and it has been suggested that Carr’s subsequent work showed the influence of O'Keeffe in a more expressive freedom. (See "O'Keeffe’s Century," by Tanya Barson, in Georgia O'Keeffe, edited by Barson, Abrams, 2016.)

Music and Painting

Music was an important part of O'Keeffe’s life and another source of inspiration for her. In the art world, there is a current interest in the relationship between art and music, and in synaesthesia (the relationship between one sensory experience and the stimulation of another, for example seeing letters as having a specific colour). This was something that interested Georgia O'Keeffe in the early years. She was captivated by “the idea that music could be manipulated into something for the eye.” Two examples that I particularly liked were the flowing lines and vibrant colours of Music Pink and Blue II, and the strong lines of Red and Orange Streak, all from 1919.

Photography and O'Keeffe

Georgia O' Keeffe, by Alfred Stieglitz, 1920.
Speaking as a fine art photographer, the work of O'Keeffe has long been an influence on my own image-making. It inspires my interest in the intimate and often abstract view of rural and urban landscapes. One of the reasons that O'Keeffe’s work is particularly interesting to a photographer is a result of her artistic and personal relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, and her friendship with other photographers of the period, including Paul Strand and Ansel Adams. She suggested that their influence led her to see with a photographic lens, and such techniques as cropping and the close-up and magnified image can be seen in her work, especially in the flower images such as Dark Iris (1927). There were also influences in her image backgrounds and portrayal of light: she painted sunspots, for example, in The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y. (1926).

There were some outstanding photographers in her circle, which also included Elliot Porter. Some of their black-and-white portraits of her have been included in the exhibition and they are hauntingly beautiful. They seem to capture the soul of this independent and fascinating woman. I love the images taken by Stieglitz of her hands – she had exquisite hands and he found a very striking way to photograph them. I particularly like his 1920 portrait, Georgia O'Keeffe.

New York and New Mexico

O'Keeffe’s move to New York in 1918 to be with Stieglitz deprived her of the rural and dramatic landscapes that she loved. Here she turned to painting the buildings around her, were influenced by Stieglitz's preoccupation with photographing the New York skyline. A number of these New York paintings are in the exhibition. They include her images of skyscrapers, for example, Ritz Tower, Night (1928). I particularly liked how she painted the light in the windows in these bleak buildings they are luminous, and they invite you in to look for more detail. She and Stieglitz also spent time at his house in Lake George, and there are paintings in the exhibition inspired by their visits, for example, the powerful From the Lake No. 1 (1924). But O'Keeffe grew increasingly frustrated with New York and found Lake George unsatisfactory -- in her words, “too green.”

Her initial visits to New Mexico between 1929 and 1931 resulted in a permanent move there in 1949, after Stieglitz’s death. The last part of the exhibition includes many paintings from her life in New Mexico. She considered New Mexico her “soul place,” the place where she belonged, and she spent the winter and spring in Abiquiú and the summer and fall in Ghost Ranch. Living there, she enjoyed the solitude and time for observation that she considered essential for her art. And she discovered new subjects for her painting. She also travelled both within New Mexico and elsewhere to experience landscapes that became part of her later work.

My Backyard, 1937, by Georgia O'Keeffe.

In New Mexico, she painted the same place and subjects over and over again. She was mesmerized by the mountain outside her window, and painted it from her house. My Backyard (1937) and My Front Yard (1941) are among the selections for this retrospective. She painted the cottonwood trees in the different seasons of the year. Some of these paintings are loose and flowing with soft colours and are quite beautiful, for example, Winter Trees, Abiquiu III, (1950). She also found inspiration in the indigenous cultural artifacts of the region and the exhibition includes images of churches and pueblos.

She made many paintings of abandoned animal skeletons including skulls, and gave some of the skulls a blue sky or landscape background. The images, Horse Skull on Blue (1931) and From the Far Away, Nearby (1937) are examples of this series in the exhibition. She created some stunning abstracts using the shape of the pelvis, for example, Pelvis Series, Red with Yellow (1945). The last paintings in the exhibition include a series of large abstracts of the patio door of her house. Uncompromising and strong, Black Door with Red (1954) is a good example, and these images provide a fitting end to this retrospective of her work.

In this brief review, I have been selective in the paintings I have chosen to speak about: my focus has been on the abstract works of O'Keeffe that I find very appealing. When you leave the last gallery, I would suggest that you purchase the handsome book accompanying the exhibition edited by Tanya Barson, Georgia O'Keeffe. In addition to the many images, the book contains some insightful and interesting articles by Barson, Sarah Greenough, Griselda Pollock, Cody Hartley, Heike Eipeldauer and Florian Steininger and Georgiana Uhlyarik as well as a chronology by Hanna Johnston. It will serve as an aide-memoire to this retrospective of Georgia O'Keeffe’s work that will remain in your mind long after the exhibition is over.

Felicity Somerset is a fine art photographer, based in Toronto. Her practice focuses on the intimate and often abstracted image that captures the essence and intricacies of rural and urban landscapes. Her photography is exhibited frequently in both group and solo shows in galleries and public spaces throughout Ontario, and her work is in private collections in Canada, the U.S., England, France, Israel, Costa Rica and the Cayman Islands.

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