I had the experience, once, of viewing an O’Keeffe exhibit that made me question what I had ever admired in the artist. The paintings felt curiously lifeless, and as a whole the show didn’t seem to add up to much.
O’Keeffe understood early on that the way paintings are hung determine how they are perceived. It was a skill that she taught her students in Canyon, Texas, and later, in New York, she was expert in hanging her own exhibitions as well as those of her fellow Stieglitz gallery artists.
“Pictures can be made to seem better or worse,” she once wrote, “by the way they are hung.”
Last weekend at the McNay Museum in San Antonio, I saw O’Keeffe at her best, standing tall and strong and transcendent, flanked by relative miniatures by Jackson Pollock and Paul Klee. An unusual and brilliant arrangement.
Unusual because we rarely get to see O’Keeffe in the company of artists outside her immediate circle, like Arthur Dove (who was, indeed, hanging across the gallery at the McNay). As a result, O’Keeffe’s legacy has been exiled to the no-man’s land of art history; respected, yes, but disconnected — and, as such, irrelevant.
Brilliant because the choice of images makes the unassailable argument that O’Keeffe is an abstract artist, her concerns as fundamentally formal as a Pollock or a Klee. (I wish I had seen “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction,” a 2010 exhibit at the Whitney Museum that made the same argument.)
O’Keeffe’s “Leaf Motif, No. 2” (1924) is as much about a leaf as Klee’s “On the River” (1939) is about a boat and Pollock’s “No. 2-B” (1952) is about a figure. (Pollock often started his abstractions with figures. We don’t insist that those paintings represent real people, so why should we fix the leaf motif as a real object?)
“Leaf Motif, No. 2” is a large (35” x 18”) vertical, comprised of a dramatic web of crisp edges and ambiguous layers. It has all the power and presence of a totem.
The Pollock and Klee are also long rectangles, much smaller, the former upright and the latter horizontal. Both use minimal means – of course, no perspective — to give us a sensation of space. We flow through Pollock’s skeins of paint, and we navigate the little pockets of space in Klee’s landscape.
Looking back to O’Keeffe, you can see that she is playing the same Cubist-inspired game — several decades earlier, and on steroids. We are sluicing through a carnival ride of caves, crevices, holes, slits, and ridges. She completely confounds any orderly definition of foreground/background, leaving us at risk of slipping into that glowing green abyss.
O’Keeffe shows us that we move through the world not from terra firma but from a constantly shifting ground. Our point of view, our subjectivity, may not be as stable as we assume, or desire, but it does offer us rapturous possibilities. We can peer into infinity. We can touch the faraway. We can walk on clouds.