A Closer Look at the World 
The art of Georgia O'Keeffe
By S. Amanda Davis

From Gadfly August 1999


"When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it's your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else."—Georgia O'Keeffe

The Georgia O'Keeffe myth is an enduring one. At the end of the century, her photograph hangs on as many walls as do reproductions of her paintings. Someone once called her a severe Mona Lisa—her lifetime companion Alfred Stieglitz likened her to a sphinx. But in fact, Georgia O'Keeffe was more like a chameleon, changing hues with each new terrain and each passing decade. Naive painter, femme fatale, Galatea to Stieglitz's Pygmalion, feminist icon, desert high priestess; she has played all these roles at one time or another. "Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things" at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., offered yet another incarnation of Georgia O'Keeffe and her work. And, like one of her monumental flowers, her myth continues to unfold and reveal new mysteries.

The exhibit focuses on O'Keeffe's distinctive aesthetic philosophy, bringing together sixty-nine of her luminous early works—paintings, watercolors and drawings of fruit, leaves, flowers, shells and bones. The point of departure is a group of charcoal drawings known as "Specials," her first venture into abstraction, which came at the age of twenty-eight. They are ambiguous shapes: swirls and curlicues rising in space and curious pellets embedded in folds. When avant-garde photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz saw them in 1916, he marveled at their modernity. He believed that one day women would rival men as great artists—a revolutionary notion at the time—and when one appeared at his doorsteps, he was overjoyed. He began to promote her at his Gallery 291 in New York, exhibiting her works, photographing them, even analyzing them for anyone who would listen. (O'Keeffe would marry Stieglitz in 1924; though he was a tremendously influential figure in his day, she has since eclipsed him in importance.)

O'Keeffe's most powerful canvases in the show are from the 1920s: intense paintings of exotic hothouse flowers that vibrate with color—velvety red and purple petunias, silky white calla lilies and iridescent green leaves. The flower paintings reflect the modern themes that had dramatically transformed O'Keeffe's art in the 1910s, from Wassily Kandinsky's theories of color harmonies to the radical ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow rejected realism as "the death of art," encouraging students to awaken to the power of a more personal and emotional art, based on arrangements of pattern, color and light. O’Keeffe had her first encounter with Dow at the University of Virginia while training with his disciple, Alon Bement. A few years later, she studied directly with Dow in New York. The small still life of a copper pot and dead rabbit from 1908 reveals how profoundly his teachings influenced her later work. A traditional painting that won her $100 in a student show, it offers a striking counterpoint to her avant-garde works.

When O'Keeffe's flower paintings appeared on the scene, Freud was in fashion. The fleshy petals, pink bulbs, long stamens and sensuously folding leaves riveted art critics who saw a vegetable world pulsating with human sexuality. Most of them had seen Stieglitz's photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe in the nude, photographs in which he scrutinized her body with the same kind of intensity she turned on flowers. Stieglitz fueled the view of her work as sexual revelation by constantly comparing her to Rodin, whose lusty sculptures and drawings had already appeared in Gallery 291.

It's no surprise then that the critics of the time found her art "gloriously female." Paul Rosenfeld, art critic and friend of Stieglitz, rhapsodized that "her great painful and ecstatic climaxes make us at last to know something the man has always wanted to know.... All is ecstasy here, ecstasy of pain as well as ecstasy of fulfillment." (!) (In this instance, one is tempted to agree with O'Keeffe, who said that such commentary revealed more about the critic than it did about her art.) Undoubtedly, these were heady times for everybody involved, save O'Keeffe, who vehemently denied the sexual reading of her works. As it turned out, it was Stieglitz who had everyone's ear, and O'Keeffe's work was viewed in this light for years.

Yet those who come prepared for sexual metaphors will find this Georgia O'Keeffe show rather straitlaced. Many of the beautiful abstractions that were created during this period—full of provocative orifices and ambiguous folds—are not included in the show. The curators are out to make a point and they don't want us distracted.

It's the role of object that takes center stage here: the hodgepodge collection of treasures that O'Keeffe immortalized with her powerful vision. Whether she is the sultry subject of Stieglitz's affection or an octogenarian in black jeans, bowler and cowboy boots, her direct and penetrating gaze still captivates in photographs documenting her life. When she turned her gaze on the subjects of her artwork, the results were often remarkable.

O'Keeffe had a way of looking at things with wonder, whether taking a flower in the hand and peering down into its most intimate parts, holding a pelvis bone at arm's length to frame the blue sky or capturing the subtle gradations of shell white. She wanted to startle people with her works, make them stop in their tracks and look with her at the things she loved. As the show reveals, the most interesting thing O'Keeffe did was shock the world with her novel images.

Though subtlety was never O'Keeffe's specialty, she could paint with exacting simplicity: Green Apple on Black Plate is a cerebral study of color and form. At times, her paintings read like tone poems on canvas: a black cross reverberates with eerie totemic power in a red sky, a radiant conch shell throws off orange and lavender lights, a white rose swirls into abstraction. But, for the most part, O'Keeffe attacked her subjects head on. Her paintings seem to shout—Look at these riotous purple petunias! Look at this savage oriental poppy! Over here, marvel at the soft, sacred spaces inside this clamshell!

Many of her still lifes look best when viewed from a distance at which form and color are dominant. That's why they reproduce so well; nobody can fill up a poster like O'Keeffe. Up close, at the surface of the canvas, where an entirely different dynamic takes place, her brushwork can seem awkward, the application of color lying flat on the plane. And though some of the images in the show seem forced—there are flowers too precious, and the floating-antlers motif verges on surrealist hokum—still, the journey through this landscape of objects is always compelling.

The exhibit also includes photographs of O'Keeffe's classrooms and studios, a display case with her philosophy books, and shelves full of her objects—an assortment of bones, bowls and rocks placed like ornaments in a Japanese tea room. As I toured the show, it was with visions of O'Keeffe as master of Zen in my head. Once modernism's sexual guru, she has been refashioned for the millennium. In the small and elegant spaces of the Phillips Collection, she materializes like the old teacher in reruns of Kung Fu, or like Obi-Wan Kenobi lecturing on the powers of the Force. Holding The Book of Tea in one hand and wagging her finger with the other, O'Keeffe admonishes us to take a closer look at the world lying before us in her canvases, this wide and wonderful place where colors beat out a pulse giving life to all small things—a calla lily, a bone, a solitary shell.