A big solo exhibit brings O’Keeffe’s American sublime to European viewers.
October 11, 2021
Paris is still under the gloomy pall of the coronavirus, but the city carries this off with élan. Proof of vaccination is mandatory in most places, and masks are required indoors, but everyone is courteous and no one seems to mind. Cafés are full, and traffic surges through the streets. Trottinettes—those narrow, elegant scooters—glide among the lanes, their drivers perfectly erect, one foot behind the other, like hieroglyphic Egyptian figures. Culture is blossoming: “Georgia O’Keeffe” opened recently at the National Museum of Modern Art-Pompidou Center, the first solo show of the artist’s work ever shown in France.
The shade of Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s dealer and husband, may disapprove of this. Stieglitz did not approve of museums in general. He thought art and commerce should be separate, and that ideally art should be owned by individuals who were personally engaged by the work, not by institutions who were dependent on wealthy donors. He was reluctant to send O’Keeffe’s work to Europe in part because he thought of her work as fragile and precious.
Stieglitz’s antagonism toward museums didn’t affect the prestige of his artists in America, because Stieglitz himself was such a powerful presence. His gallery, 291, founded in 1905, was the first to show many avant-garde artists, both American and European. His magazine, Camera Work, explored the burgeoning modernist movement. Critics paid attention to Stieglitz and his artists, and at the core of the Stieglitz stable were the American modernists: Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, and Georgia O’Keeffe. Stieglitz presented them and made them famous. But, ultimately, his antagonistic feeling toward Europe did affect his artists. Their works are now in virtually every great American art museum, but they are virtually absent in European institutions. O’Keeffe, once voted one of the five most famous women in America, is mostly an unknown presence in Europe. Many French art scholars seemed to think that American modernism began in 1947, with Jackson Pollock.
Didier Ottinger, the curator of the O’Keeffe show, is the deputy director at the Pompidou. He has worked at New York’s moma, and so is more aware of American art than many of his French colleagues. When he first tried to interest other institutions in an O’Keeffe exhibition, he was met with shrugs. “O’Keeffe? No one knows who she is,” he was told. “She is no one here.” Misogyny also probably played a part in O’Keeffe’s absence from the cultural arena. One French art historian, hearing about the show, said, “Spare me. All that women stuff.” Male stuff is integral to Picasso’s work, but his work is not disdained by scholars because of it.
The exhibition is comprehensive; it’s also gorgeous. At the start, big photographs of O’Keeffe are projected on a wall. These serve as reminders that O’Keeffe herself is both art and artist, something that has always captivated and confused her audience. Next is a space based on 291 and includes pieces from several other artists from the Stieglitz stable, and also one of O’Keeffe’s great early works: “Special No. 9,” from 1915. It was part of a group of drawings that O’Keeffe mailed to her friend Anita Pollitzer, in New York, who showed them to Stieglitz. Pollitzer famously quoted Stieglitz as saying, “Finally a woman on paper.” The charcoal image is well known, but it’s impressive to see it in real life. It’s remarkable for its expressiveness and sinuous beauty, as well as the bold authority of its line.
The exhibition contains examples of all of O’Keeffe’s important works—the magnified flowers, the barns, the skyscrapers, the skulls and antlers, the dreamlike landscapes, the late abstract renderings of buildings and sky. In America, these paintings may be familiar, but here in Europe they seem to deliver a new message. “I wonder why I like this country so much—I don’t know unless it is because it is so big . . . it is so very big,” O’Keeffe wrote from Texas, in 1916. It was there that she first became engaged by open space, and the show contains works from this period, little watercolor miracles of meteorological studies—air and sky and color. O’Keeffe was a master of the medium, and in these she comes as close as possible to painting with light.
It was later, in New Mexico, that O’Keeffe began her extended exploration, now using oils, larger formats, and a new way of presenting space. The Southwestern landscapes are smooth, rich, and glowing, and in them O’Keeffe makes America into a mythic territory. These ringing blue skies, these wide roseate plains, these great, windy sweeps of land exist nowhere else. Hung in a museum in Paris, they stand out as utterly unique.
The works carry a metaphysical meaning, as well as a geographical one. With the skulls and antlers, bones and shells, O’Keeffe creates a secular iconography. For her, these subjects did not represent death but something vital and lasting. A bone found in the desert is like a shell found on the beach: both are forms defined by function, both are beautiful and enduring evidence of life. O’Keeffe’s images and juxtapositions are mysterious, but she wasn’t a member of the Surrealist movement, which deliberately juxtaposed objects without connections to one another. Her intention was quite different: these objects have a deep connection—one that we recognize on an intuitive level. “Pelvis with the Distance,” from 1943, shows a smooth, white bone, all curves and slopes and openings. It is suspended, high in the air, above a line of low, undulant blue hills. This physical juxtaposition—the celestial locus of the bone, the earth-hugging horizon below—creates a majestic sweep of space. O’Keeffe places the viewer aloft, level with the bone, high up in the empyrean. The supernatural height, the mystery, the hallucinatory beauty of the object—all combine to create a sense of the sublime.
The sublime was a subject of the nineteenth-century American landscape painters—Thomas Cole, Asher B. Durand, Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, and others. They painted majestic views of mountains, canyons, plains, and icebergs from all over the world, to show the relationship between man and nature. Images of “the sublime” represent nature at her most powerful and mysterious; the art works pay homage to an ineffable presence that is greater than humankind. O’Keeffe also explored this notion, using modernist means to show the exhilarating breadth of her country. She showed the great skies, the color and light of the plains, and the silent and enigmatic presence of their denizens.
O’Keeffe’s calm authority of style, her innate connection to the natural world, and her commitment to beauty give power to these paintings. The images are at once abstract and realistic, familiar and mysterious, sumptuous and magisterial. With them, O’Keeffe takes command of the American landscape. The critical reviews of the show are glowing; the crowds are large and interested. A French artist told me that O’Keeffe’s work touches something within her. A French art historian—a woman—told me how strong the work is, and how American. No thanks to Stieglitz for all this—though, at this level of prominence and distinction, probably even he would be proud. But, thanks to the Pompidou, O’Keeffe has finally arrived in Paris.