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O’Keeffe: against interpretation

Georgia O’Keeffe may be the most egregiously over-interpreted artist of all time. The interpretations, and the narratives, have gotten so thick that it’s hard to see past them to the paintings. This 1935 review, one of my favorites, is a clear view to the paintings, “freed [ . . .] from literalism.”

“So intensely felt are Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings in the making that a visit to one of her exhibitions is in itself an emotional experience. We like to think that the power of her work resides in her approach to her subjects. It is as if a mountain, a barn, a flower were alike important in her vision. She does not glorify the things she paints, but so magnifies their essence that the observer sees them through her mind. Interpretation and comment could not attain to such exaltation. Rather does she achieve greatly by accepting the thing for what it is, making a song of that rapturous acceptance.

The O’Keeffe paintings on view until March 11 at An American Place, 509 Madison Avenue, are dated from 1919 to 1934. Every canvas is an authentic thing in that it exists for itself as a painting and nothing else. There is no literary content in her art, which is entirely within the pictorial realm. Always she has considered her subjects until she has freed them from literalism, holding steadily to her personal vision until they yielded clues that evolved into individual forms of expression. Thus her exhibitions take on an envigorating [sic] originality.

Here are two autumn leaves, amplified in size, gray against flame floating in an atmosphere of yellow clouds. Strongly they were felt in the realization, for one trembles a little just to look at the result. Only a great emotion controlled could have imagined and set down the great swirling form in the next frame, a crescent of yellow athwart [sic] the sky like a gigantic plant stem bending before the wind, with a horizon band of vermillion for compositional opposition. Then there are themes inspired by New Mexican hills, with veinings left by the down-coursing rain torrents, and the lush greens of trees forming rhythmic color scents upon the reddish forms. A white barn with dark roof and doors is projected against a sky of ineffable blue. Unpromising as a subject, one might have supposed, yet there it is – a picture.”

“Georgia O’Keeffe’s Paintings,” by E. C. Sherburne. Christian Science Monitor, 2 February 1935.

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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