With 120 works on paper and eight paintings spanning more than four decades, this show proposes a new theory about the artist.
April 27, 2023
In the spring of 1946 the Museum of Modern Art mounted its first solo exhibition of a female artist: a retrospective devoted to the work of the American painter Georgia O’Keeffe. By then, O’Keeffe (1887-1986) had been showing regularly in New York for three decades, the only female (and most salable) member of the coterie of talent around the prominent art dealer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz — who was also her lover and then her husband.
O’Keeffe’s success owed much to Stieglitz’s promotion, especially his eroticized reading of her paintings of landscapes and semiabstract flowers as expressions of female sexuality. He established that sexuality as O’Keeffe’s by exhibiting some of the many intimate photographs he took of her nude or partially nude at the Anderson Galleries in 1921. By 1929, O’Keeffe was quite well-off, thanks to Stieglitz’s efforts.
Yet for nearly 80 years after O’Keeffe’s MoMA retrospective, the museum didn’t pay her much attention. The Modern was swept into the postwar period on the wave of Abstract Expressionism; it was in the market for Pollocks and de Koonings. Since 1946 its O’Keeffe holdings has risen lackadaisically to 13 works, including five from the artist’s foundation and bequest in the mid-90s.
But things change, and change brings “Georgia O’Keeffe: To See Takes Time” to MoMA — a show of about 120 works on paper and eight paintings from 1915 to 1964 — along with some course correction. The museum wants to grow its representation of female artists past and present. It also needs to dilute its vaunted concentration on European modernism by either acquiring the works of non-Europeans or redirecting its attention to those it already owns. This would include the early 20th-century American modernists — especially those of the Stieglitz circle — whose efforts the museum has too often displayed, until recent years, near its escalators or elevators.
Now MoMA wants to establish O’Keeffe’s modernist bona fides by defining her penchant for repeating images — landscapes, flowers, West Texas canyons, portraits, female nudes, evening stars — as a “serial practice.” (Most artists repeat images constantly but not in series.) Such “seriality,” if you will, was a means by which she pushed her motifs toward abstraction, or explored different materials, primarily charcoal, watercolor and pastel. To this end the show brings together different series of related images — some for the first time in decades — which of course has its own rewards.
“Serial practice” is usually reserved for the repeating forms or strategies of Minimalism or Conceptual Art. Here, the term seems contrived or forced, as if it were needed as a seal of approval for O’Keeffe’s entry into the Modern’s pantheon. It narrows the view of O’Keeffe’s achievement, rearranging known elements rather than giving it a new shape.
This show, which has been organized by Samantha Friedman, a MoMA curator, and Laura Neufeld, a paper conservator, has a chronological installation and a somewhat fragmented, scattershot effect. Its groupings of two to five and occasionally more related works seem to reflect a short attention span or a plethora of ideas and responses on the artist’s part. Some groupings are much better than others, which tends to be the case with O’Keeffe. The installation snakes its way through two large galleries of which the first — where the works range from 1915 to 1918 — is noticeably stronger than the second, which covers 1922 to 1964.
“First Drawing of the Blue Lines,” 1916; “Black Lines,” 1916; and “Blue Lines X,” 1916. The stripped-down motifs can also evoke tall thin water birds. Credit…Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; from left: via National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; center: via Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; via Metropolitan Museum of Art
On one extreme among the successful reunions are three nearly identical, linear, admittedly radical compositions from 1916: executed, respectively, in charcoal, black watercolor and blue watercolor. Titled “First Drawing of the Blue Lines,” “Black Lines” and “Blue Lines X,” these works figure prominently in the show’s opening gallery and are some of the most stripped-down motifs in Western modernism, securing O’Keeffe a place in its history. They can be seen as formal precursors to the vertical lines, called “zips,” with which the Abstract Expressionist Barnett Newman divided his fields of color in the 1950s and ’60s. But nature is rarely absent from O’Keeffe’s motifs; the lines can also evoke tall thin water birds — herons, for example.
Another reunion of three works goes to an opposite extreme in style and skill: O’Keeffe’s three exquisitely realistic charcoal portraits and one pastel, of the handsome head and gentle features of the outstanding American painter Beauford Delaney, from 1943. Do these images progress in any serial way? Not really. O’Keeffe seems to have been captivated by Delaney; her portraits of him reveal a degree of warmth that is not often expressed so openly in her work.