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ART : Georgia on His Mind : An exhibit at Getty Museum casts new light on the relationship between artist Georgia O'Keeffe and photographer Alfred Stieglitz

June 28, 1992|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA | Hunter Drohojowska is chair, department of liberal arts and science, at the Otis/Parsons School of Art & Design. She is writing a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe that will be published by Alfred A. Knopf Inc.

The major coup of this exhibition is the inclusion of a phallic white sculpture, a bronze cast of a Plasticine model last seen in O'Keeffe's 1917 exhibition at Stieglitz's gallery. The sculpture was known to art historians through photographs, but it was thought by many to have disappeared. According to Naef, O'Keeffe and her assistant Juan Hamilton had cast 10 copies of the sculpture in 1979 but never released them to the market.

This exhibition marks the first time the cast sculpture will be seen, along with a photograph of O'Keeffe holding it and another of it posed with her bare feet. The sexual implications of these photographs are difficult to deny. Naef included them as aspects of what he calls "O'Keeffe's variant personas." Referring to the picture of O'Keeffe grasping the cylindrical form, he says: "This variant persona is the woman making a direct association with the counter-female sensibilities."

Naef chose many of the photographs to present other "variant personas" never seen before by the public. "The masculine persona of O'Keeffe was not evident in earlier selections of work," he says, holding a darkly printed photograph of O'Keeffe, her brow furrowed with anxiety. "You're not sure if she is a man or woman or even if it is O'Keeffe." Turning to a photograph of a bare bottom, Naef observes: "We never think of O'Keeffe as prone or with her back to us."

"The persona of genuine girlishness is in a photograph of O'Keeffe wearing a white dress," Naef says. "Stieglitz saw O'Keeffe as a little girl and a symbol of whiteness, the epitome of virtue. This portrait goes back to the 19th Century and images of women in perpetual girlhood."

Referring to a photograph of a bold nude torso of O'Keeffe, Naef says: "Stieglitz vacillates between O'Keeffe as a little girl and as a woman. Here she is woman cum laude , a Venus."

Naef believes that all these contradictory and complementary personas were created not by O'Keeffe but by Stieglitz: "Stieglitz is molding his subject, not by directorial authority, but by the power of suggestion and a vision to create several different personas in one body. It's why, I think, she allowed herself to be photographed. She was fascinated by how many people Stieglitz could see in her. She marveled, 'It wasn't me that did this. It was him.' "What is hardest for art historians to talk about is what Stieglitz contributed. It's so easy for us to talk about her face, her body being seized, rather than O'Keeffe as raw material that in a skillful way he shapes to his own vision, creating something that didn't exist. O'Keeffe had no idea these were aspects of herself."

Naef's exhibition is important not only for the new ways in which an audience will be able to see O'Keeffe by Stieglitz, but also for the fact that this may be one of the last times these photographs will be shown in an institutional context.

In 1949, O'Keeffe felt that Stieglitz's photographs were looking "less fresh" and asked his old friend Edward Steichen to do a chemical conservation treatment. It appears that he immersed the prints in an acidic bath that may have made them highly unstable.

David Scott, head of museum services at the Getty Conservation Institute, along with conservators from the Art Institute of Chicago and the National Gallery of Art, are conducting research to discover the possible consequences of Steichen's well-meant treatments. In addition, Scott is attempting to ascertain Stieglitz's original printing and developing formulas.

During the exhibition, the conservators will be closely monitoring the prints to see if any fading can be detected.

Naef says many of Stieglitz's greatest prints have been affected: "It's safe to say that in the future, some of the O'Keeffe-by-Stieglitz photographs will have very limited exposure to light."

So it turns out that the material evidence of this reclusive couple's passion is elusive in the most fundamental sense. How like the very fable of the O'Keeffe-Stieglitz relationship. It is as though, even after death, they still insist on their privacy.

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