Georgia O'Keeffe is primarily known as a figurative artist, but this show concentrates on her early work (1916-mid 1930s) when she made her name as one of Americas early abstractionists. The show starts with some early charcoal drawings, and some encouragingly messy watercolors that she exhibited in 1916 at "Gallery 291", a visionary art space that was run by the visionary photographer Alfred Stiegletz. He would become a major figure in both her personal and professional life. She would become a subject in his photos both nude and clothed, which clearly helped promote the sensual and erotic aspects of her paintings. It also promoted the commercial success of both her and Stiegletz's art.
It's interesting to me that her work was seen as so groundbreaking when it's not really all that abstract, even by the standards of the time. She usually used some clearly identifiable figurative subject matter, and always had some kind of illusionistic space with modeled forms that you can see light fall on, pass through, or reflect off of. Maybe this noncommittal approach to abstraction made her work more accessible, and gave abstract painting a broader audience. But, compared to some of the radical abstraction that was going on at the same time in Europe by artists like Wassily Kandinsky Kazimir Malevich, and Piet Mondrian these paintings seem very tame. Admittedly she was dealing with different issues than they were. Her paintings are about abstracting from nature to give a truer, more emotional experience of being in the landscape than can be reached through conventional depiction. She wanted to capture a feeling, rather than make a picture. It's an ambitious goal, but some of her colleagues here in America who were working towards the same goal like Marsden Hartley, and Arthur Dove were clearly doing so with more ambition, and explored the genre in much more depth . Compared to their paintings hers look timid and illustrative. Even John Marin, who would never call himself an abstract painter seems much more raw and visceral in his handling of the landscape than she. The same could be said of Charles Burchfield, or Milton Avery for that matter (although Avery painted later). You can see the influence some of these artists had in her work in terms of pallet and structure, but she seems much less committed in her soft, almost apologetic brushstrokes.
O'Keefe was a very evocative colorist, and her paintings are best when she allowed the color to carry the strength of the painting, drawing attention away from her pictorially stagnant compositions, that for all their weird amorphous forms still look decorative and structurally flat. It made me wonder what would have happened if she had moved more earnestly into abstraction, and allowed the paint to simply be seen as paint. Maybe she would have turned into an interesting colorfield painter. Instead she went in the other direction and retreated back into figurative imagery. Surprisingly in the last room of the show we flash forward to 1952 where there are two paintings, "My Last Door", and "Black Door with Red" which are flat and geometric, and the most purely abstract paintings in the show. Maybe she was exploring what could have been. I overheard a couple of young women talking about how"fearless and intense" she was. It sounded like wishful thinking to me, but of course they were looking at one of Stiegletz photos of her at the time.
So, why is she considered such an important artist? Well, some people love her. Some of that has to do with the accessibility issue I brought up before. Also, clearly a lot of it has to do with Stiegletz promotion of her paintings, and more specifically with his promotion of her as a female art icon, and her paintings as the true inner voice of women. She was the only woman around at the time painting like this (or at least the only one I'm aware of). But, does that make her work distinctly female in character? Is it because her abstractions of flowers and canyons look vaginal in structure? Maybe it's because her paintings are pretty, and her light ambivalent brushstrokes were seen as feminine at the time. Maybe they still are. How sad would that be?