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Art and Legend

Georgia O'Keeffe at BAM


Georgia O'Keeffe is undoubtedly one the most famous American artists of all time. In terms of name recognition by the general public, she is right up there with Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol. It is a name so encrusted in legend and myth that virtually any work by her hand takes on iconic status. Over the years, her images have been seared into the American consciousness from countless posters, perfume and fashion ads, coffee table books and calendars. After so much second-hand exposure to her work, one welcomes the opportunity to experience it and take its measure in the flesh.

The June 30th opening of "Georgia O'Keeffe: Visions of the Sublime" at the Boise Art Museum marked the last stop on a four-city tour originating from the University of Michigan. There is not a ton of her art on view-only 32 paintings and one sculpture to represent a seven-decade career-but enough to sketch the range of her oeuvre. The exhibit may have been more accurately titled "Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz," as the latter-her first dealer and lover, and only husband-has a presence here almost equal to hers. The show is augmented by numerous photos taken by Steiglitz of the artist (primarily her hands) and other subjects, plus images of him as well. O'Keeffe's life and mystique is further documented with photographs by Todd Webb and a video. A rather obvious celebrity-worship is a major component of this project, stealing some of the limelight from her paintings. Further diluting the mix is an unconvincing attempt to connect O'Keeffe to an earlier American infatuation with the "sublime" in nature via a selection of 19th century paintings by the likes of Asher Durand and Thomas Cole.

O'Keeffe resonates in the popular imagination for a number of reasons, a mixture of fact and fable. She is seen as a fiercely independent American spirit, which was certainly true in her art but not always in her private life, until, that is, at age 54 she left the difficult, self-centered Stieglitz behind. Her love of bright, sun-soaked colors, evocative landscapes, grand vistas and botanical subjects is inviting and accessible. People with low tolerance for abstract art are comfortable with her nature- and landscape-based abstractions no matter how minimal or formalized they get. She is often projected as a self-styled modernist unspoiled by the "contaminant" of the European avant-garde, which is not wholly correct. O'Keeffe is also perceived by many as a feminist role-model, which is, again, truer in her art where she pioneered feminist imagery and embraced feminine sensibility, than in her personal life. Throughout her career, she repeatedly denied the interpretations of critics who saw erotic or feminist content in her art, despite the evidence to the contrary. Perhaps most importantly, viewers recognize in O'Keeffe an honest, poetic, non-derivative painting style in which she subsumes any traces of ego to a grander vision.

The exhibit at hand, however, does not really succeed in presenting O'Keeffe's achievement. Like any artist, O'Keeffe had her highs and lows, and there are certainly a few highs on view here, but this is no survey of "greatest hits," and it even contains some second-rate work. The ironic result is that this homage to such a large reputation inadvertently highlights those very characteristics of her art which are most often the target of less-enamored critics.

For instance, the abstract works the curators chose emphasize the literal-minded approach she often took toward abstraction rather than celebrating the significant new forms she brought to modern art. Some of her abstracted subjects, like Desert Abstraction (Bear Lake) of 1931 and From the River-Light Blue (1964), come across as stylized and superficial rather than innovative. A number of O'Keeffe's naturalistic works on view are disappointing, too, either because of the sugar-coated palette she could occasionally slip into with her landscape and floral studies, or just plain uninspired treatment of atypical subjects. For instance, Stables, painted in Canada in 1932, is rendered so stiffly as to look naïve. The paintings that qualify as "sublime" are a precious few.

The most interesting part of the show is the first gallery exhibiting her earliest work. Several pieces from the 1910s represent what might be called her "Blue Rider" period, showing the influence of pre-World War I Kandinsky, and through him the Symbolist movement of the late 19th century. Kandinsky's treatise Concerning the Spiritual in Art, with its ideas about colors as musical metaphors and equating abstract forms with spiritual ideals, stuck a chord in O'Keeffe and guided her artistic development. Works like Red Landscape (1916-17) and Untitled (Abstraction) of 1918, show the evolution of her own biomorphic/mystical abstraction. In the watercolors Train at Night in Desert (1916) with its color-tinged wintry white-out, and Roof with Snow (1916) sporting piles of magenta ice, her debt to early European modernism is quite apparent.

An intriguing, semi-abstract work in charcoal entitled No. 9 Special (1915) is the only example of the inspiration O'Keeffe sometimes took from the grittier side of modern life. In this train subject, the chugging machinery is only evidenced by the thick, rhythmic blasts of dirty smoke choking the air and defiling the natural setting. I was also drawn to her still lifes from the '20s like Peach and Glass (1927) who's cool, subtle palette, pristine geometry, and stylish restraint seem uncharacteristically subdued, and the lush, verdant Skunk Cabbage (1927), an early ode to botanical form.

It was in the 1930's that we see a proto-feminism coming into O'Keeffe's art, even if she didn't publicly acknowledge it as such. The striking, iconic Dark and Lavender Leaf from 1931, with its organic, pink interior and intimations of reproduction and rebirth is one way she slyly introduced the female anatomy into her painting. A more blatant use of vaginal imagery can be seen in the mist-wrapped mountainscape, Waterfall-No.III, Iao Valley from 1939 in which lush Hawaiian slopes converge like thighs on a waterfall that conveniently cleaves the recessed center of the work. Boldly provocative for its time, Waterfall beat Judy Chicago to the punch by over 30 years.

Of the works from O'Keeffe's later career, two especially deserve mention. Perhaps the closest she comes to capturing the sublime here is the Rothko-esque variety achieved in the large Sky Above White Clouds I of 1962. A skyscape based on actual experience, its pale, delicately shifting hues and light-suffused color fields transcend its literal origins. Sky evokes the sublimation of matter and feeling for limitless boundaries that inform O'Keeffe's best abstract work. The 1965 Canyon County is an earthbound abstraction, composed of imposing rusty rock formations that anticipate Richard Serra's giant sheets of corten steel. In all aspects-composition, formal design, color-it is a rewarding piece. Given the extravagant cost of this show, one expects more gems like these.

The exhibit will be up through September 19, Boise Art Museum, 670 Julia Davis Dr., 345-8330,, $8 general admission, $6 seniors and students, $4 children grades 1-13, FREE for children under 6. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesdays through Saturdays, noon to 5 p.m., Sundays.