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Beyond the O'Keeffe Mystique

Review * The 'Poetry' show focuses tightly on her paintings of objects but strays into the cult of personality.

March 12, 2000|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | Christopher Knight is The Times' art critic

SAN FRANCISCO — Looking at the art of Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) is difficult. First, before you can even get to the paintings and drawings, it's necessary to sweep away the dense bramble of personal mythology that still surrounds the legendary artist. The cult of personality, which is a defining characteristic of American mass culture in the 20th century, found its first artist-subject in O'Keeffe. Her 98-year life span helped to put the talented painter in exactly the right place at precisely the right time for an outsize role.

"Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things" is symptomatic of the difficulty. Organized jointly by the Phillips Collection in Washington and the Dallas Museum of Art, and currently installed at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in the last stop of its four-city tour, the show is an insightful, carefully chosen exhibition of O'Keeffe's work. Yet the museum couldn't resist exploiting the cult.

The entrance to the small presentation (about 50 works, several quite diminutive) is dominated by enormous black-and-white photomurals displaying aspects of the famous artist's famous lifestyle. They chronicle the classroom in a hardscrabble Texas town where she taught during World War I; her lovely adobe ranch in New Mexico, both inside and out; her studio overlooking a vast expanse of desert, with tubes of paint carefully laid out amid jars filled with brushes. Over in the corner, a video monitor shows a continuous loop of O'Keeffe's world in glorious living color.

At the center, wedged between two of the giant photo enlargements, hangs "Oriental Poppies" (1928), one of the more powerful and dramatic pictures in the show. Two orange-red, blackhearted poppies are pushed up so close to the picture's foreground plane as to virtually eradicate any naturalistic background, while also offering a bumblebee's-eye view of the flowers. These otherwise startling poppies, overwhelmed and trapped in lifestyle hell, fairly wilt.

The cult of personality around O'Keeffe is distinctive, partly because of her gender. As an ambitious, career-minded woman operating in a patriarchal society, she automatically stood out from the pack. Yet the cult is unusually powerful--and instructive--for another reason.

O'Keeffe fit an unspoken stereotype, established in American culture by the end of the 19th century, when she was born, and still very much in place today. The arts are marginal in American life because they're considered to be a feminine interest rather than a masculine one. With O'Keeffe, the gender of the artist conformed with the gender socially ascribed to American art--and the rest is history.

O'Keeffe divided her oil paintings into two main subject categories--landscapes and objects--and "The Poetry of Things" (emphasis on things) singles out the latter for examination. Typically they're better than her landscapes, except for the amazing series of watercolors she began in the late 1910s. They aren't exactly still life paintings, in the usual sense of that term and as represented by the earliest picture in the show, "Dead Rabbit With Copper Pot" (1908).

Painted in New York while she was still a student of William Merritt Chase, this dark, tonal picture is a kitchen still life in the tradition of Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin. The upper left quarter holds a richly painted copper pot, while the carcass of a rabbit laid out next to the pot cuts the canvas in two along a diagonal. Both rabbit and pot occupy an undefined, atmospheric space--a field of brown, whose tonalities blend with the sympathetic colors of chestnut-hued copper and cinnamon-flecked bunny fur. But the fact of their location in a three-dimensional world is clear. These are things of the domestic realm.

Perhaps the most daring aspect of the design is the way the carefully composed rabbit and pot fill half the picture, balancing another half that is essentially an empty field of color. "Dead Rabbit With Copper Pot" remains a traditional Realist picture, but it also stands as a harbinger of things to come--specifically Modernist things.

"Green Apple on Black Plate" (1922) is the first great Modern picture in the show (it's featured on the cover of the exhibition's informative catalog). A green apple floats against a black disk, which itself hovers in the upper part of a modulated field of off-white. The modest little painting builds on the sense of abstraction seen developing in several charcoal and watercolor drawings hanging nearby.

Objects found in traditional still life paintings usually have metaphoric or narrative implications, but this painting begins to ignore those habitually accepted characteristics. Something very different starts to happen. Like a homespun Malevich painting, "Green Apple on Black Plate" picks up Cezanne's apple and lofts it out into the void. The stylishly placed apple and the floating plate are dislocated from the space of daily life, becoming instead things that occupy the space of art.

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