Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 11, 2000
Elizabeth Hutton Turner Georgia O’Keeffe: The Poetry of Things New Haven and Washington, D.C.: Yale University Press in association with The Phillips Collection, 1999. 160 pp.; 80 color ills.; 69 b/w ills. Cloth $35.00
Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., April 17–July 18, 1999; Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico, August 7–October 17, 1999; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, Texas, November 7, 1999–January 30, 2000; Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, February 19–May 14, 2000.

This catalogue accompanies the exhibition of the same title, organized as “the first to focus in-depth on O’Keeffe’s aesthetics through an examination of her paintings of objects” (vii). This formalist approach might seem a curiously retardataire method to employ nowadays, but those familiar with O’Keeffe scholarship will relish the focus on the artist’s work rather than her self. The first museum to purchase work from Georgia O’Keeffe was the Phillips Collection, in 1926. At the same institution, curator and project director Elizabeth Hutton Turner conceived and carried out this new exhibition. Though the works in the installation are formally grouped by related subjects, the essays in the catalogue are expansive, and essential to enjoying a richer understanding of these objects.

To emphasize the aesthetic production of the artist apart from her persona violates the canonical critical method for analyzing O’Keeffe’s work. This method was originated by the artist’s lover (later husband), dealer, and publicist, Alfred Stieglitz, at the outset of her career. Such criticism entails the inseparable relationship of O’Keeffe’s artistic forms with deeply intimate suggestions as to her person. As Jay Gates, Director of the Phillips Collection, notes in his foreword to the catalogue, “O’Keeffe once said toward the end of her long life, ’I’m bored with my history, my myth.’ To which may be added more than a decade after her death and after numerous biographies the rejoinder, ‘So are we’” (vii).

We are indeed. The many biographies on this extraordinarily popular figure range from the serious and respected (Laurie Lisle, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of Georgia O’Keeffe , New York: Seaview Books, 1980; rev. ed. New York: Washington Square Press, 1987) to the gossipy and sensational (Benita Eisler, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz: An American Romance , New York: Doubleday, 1991). Other approaches have often proved more valuable to O’Keeffe scholarship. The most notable of these include O’Keeffe, Stieglitz, and the Critics (Barbara Buhler Lynes, Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1989), Georgia O’Keeffe and the Eros of Place (Bram Dijkstra, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998), and the recently debuted, long-anticipated publication by Barbara Buhler Lynes ( Georgia O’Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999), who was appointed curator at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe last year. However, biography is still the dominant literary mode in books on this artist.

In the primary catalogue essay, “The Real Meaning of Things,” Turner contextualizes the development of O’Keeffe’s style in her still-life subjects. She analyzes the vague territory between abstraction and representation as a function of O’Keeffe’s aesthetic idea of selecting, rather than describing, the subject matter. Turner cites Arthur Wesley Dow as the artist’s most influential teacher and his concept of “filling space in a beautiful way” (1) as essential to understanding the imagery O’Keeffe created. This useful history chronicles exhibitions of contemporary artists in New York City, readings referenced in her personal correspondence, friendships with other artists, and details of O’Keeffe’s visits to New Mexico—persuasively demonstrating the multiple influences on her style and subject matter.

The second essay, “The Still Life Redefined,” is a fascinating and enlightening contribution from independent art historian Marjorie Balge-Crozier. She fluidly alternates formal and contextual discussions of O’Keeffe’s work with citations of critical responses and the history of still-life subjects. Her thoughtful and multivalent consideration of this work offers an important contribution to O’Keeffe scholarship.

The essay opens by emphasizing the training O’Keeffe received from another influential teacher, William Merritt Chase, particularly in the subject of still life. O’Keeffe enrolled in Chase’s classes at the Art Students League in New York City in 1907-8 and won first prize in his still-life class. Balge-Crozier examines Chase’s own stylistic background to establish the context of O’Keeffe’s training.

A brief discussion of O’Keeffe’s exposure to natural history is followed by accounts of where the artist obtained the objects for her still lifes, some of which fall “outside the usual range of subject in Western art” (54). Different approaches to nature and natural elements are cited in the work of O’Keeffe’s American contemporaries, poet William Carlos Williams and painters Charles Demuth and Maria Oakey Dewing. Finally, O’Keeffe’s New Mexican subjects are considered as follows: as a new concept of self-portraiture, in relation to culture and site, within the aesthetics of abstraction, and, of course, as part of the still-life tradition.

The assistant curator of the exhibition, Elsa Mezvinsky Smithgall, produced an illustrated chronology entitled “Georgia O’Keeffe’s Life and Influences.” It is particularly helpful in its inclusion of events outside of O’Keeffe’s own life—especially during her youth—that came to have an impact on her later. The catalogue is noted and indexed, and it features a list of works in the exhibition. Regrettably, there is no bibliography.

Without this catalogue I could never have fully appreciated the exhibition, which I saw at the second venue in Santa Fe. At the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum there only forty-six objects were shown, as compared to the eighty-one listed in the catalogue. Though it is common to find fewer pieces scheduled to travel than appear at the initial site, the lack of extensive gallery space at this museum was undoubtedly the problem.

The different sections of the publication are preceded by brief quotations from the artist, each set in the center of a full page. In these, O’Keeffe speaks on the gathering of subject matter, her working method, and aesthetics. Perhaps these excerpts are analogous to the “poetry” of the project title. The installation I saw featured the same statements silkscreened in large letters on the walls of the galleries. While the quotations in the catalogue are interesting bits that effectively announce new sections, in the museum they acquired an authoritative presence that was more distracting than enlightening. I imagine this was a design decision, possibly intended to emphasize the relation between the catalogue and the exhibition. Viewing the show before I read the catalogue, however, I could not fathom why such minor sentences were presented in such heroic scale. The emphasis given to O’Keeffe’s words came dangerously close to the Vasarian trap Turner tried so conscientiously to avoid.

Debora Rindge
New Mexico State University