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O’Keeffe: seeing the world from uncanny angles
Georgia O’Keeffe Petunia No. 2 1924
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation and Gerald and Kathleen Peters
© Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

“O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism.” The Art Gallery of New South Wales. Through October 2, 2017.

The exhibit includes 30 of O’Keeffe’s paintings, three gallery’s worth. They include none of my favorites, and a number I don’t even like. (All the cottonwoods.) My goal during this second visit is to take a deep dive into selected paintings. The crowd prefers the Archibald Prize exhibit downstairs, so I can loiter in front of any painting with impunity, murmuring into my voice recorder and clicking close-ups. It was like a private showing.

I was surprised how fresh O’Keeffe’s paintings still looked, after several years of detailed research: that insanely smart paintwork, those sensuous contours, the radical compositions and extreme color combinations.

I slipped into the paintings and out of time.

Again and again, in her best paintings, O’Keeffe insists on showing us how she saw the world: from uncanny angles. Glimpsing into a dark portal. Hovering above cannas and corn, sluiced through a narrow canvas. Close up to a blossom. Lying on the ground, clouds parading by like ticker tape. The moon framed through a bone. An upended river. She confounds gravity, refusing to distinguish between vertical and horizontal or between figure and ground, literally pulling the rug from under the viewer, denying us any predictable bit of ground to stand on. She forces the question: Where am I? And then denies any possibility of dead reckoning. You’re always trying to find your feet, and you can only do that by placing yourself in her shoes.
Georgia O’Keeffe Pelvis IV 1944
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation
© 1987, Private Collection

The young artist who posed for the camera, her image infamously appropriated by the gaze of another, spent the rest of her life inscribing her own gaze on the canvas. As she often wrote to friends in excitement, “I wish you could see what I see.”

As I exit, I’m late to meet my husband and need to snap back to reality, but I can’t. I stop in a corner, to realize how unreasonably moved I am by O’Keeffe’s courage. Yes, it was courageous, to press forward her own point of view, her own way of limning the world. And to ask us to embrace that difference.

Next time: O’Keeffe, Margaret Preston & Grace Cossington Smith

My Georgia O'Keeffe

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Ann Daly PhD is an essayist specializing in women and women's history. She is working on a book about Georgia O'Keeffe.

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