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His women redefined art in America

June 13, 2008|Leah Ollman | Special to The Times

SAN DIEGO -- Long before Hillary, there was Georgia -- another woman of formidable talents whose charismatic, powerful husband afforded her substantial opportunities, even as he influenced the shaping of her public identity. With Bill Clinton, at least, that influence seems an outgrowth of circumstances more than design. The same can't be said of Alfred Stieglitz, who, according to a new book and exhibition, molded the image of his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, to fit his notion of the ideal "woman-child."

Photographer, gallery owner and journal publisher, Stieglitz was, arguably, the early 20th century's most avid advocate for the recognition of Modern art in America. He introduced this country to Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne, and championed numerous American Modernists, including Dove, Hartley, Marin and Weber.

He staged exhibitions of several female artists, but O'Keeffe's role in his personal life and professional enterprises eclipsed them all. Her work likewise dominates the exhibition "Georgia O'Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle," now making its final stop at the San Diego Museum of Art. With 27 paintings and drawings by O'Keeffe among more than 50 works by others, the show is a feast for fans of the artist as well as an abbreviated but still provocative art history lesson.

The exhibition grew out of the recent book "Modernism and the Feminine Voice" by Kathleen Pyne. For the show, Pyne collaborated with curators Barbara Buhler Lynes of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., and Sylvia Yount of the High Museum of Art in Atlanta. Both exhibition and text trace the idea that Stieglitz, much influenced by Freud, linked the creative process to femininity, and femininity to both mature sexuality and childlike intuition.

Stieglitz hardly expected the male artists he exhibited and published to represent the fundamental nature of manhood, but he looked for and emphasized expressions of a female sensibility in the women he supported. Anne Brigman engages the age-old symbiotic connection between woman and nature in her moody, balletic photographs, many of them nude self-portraits. In a 1905 print, a woman rises milky white from a dark cleft between rocks. In another image, from 1907, her body seems to spiral upward as if an extension of a twisted and split tree trunk.

Photographer Gertrude Kasebier's work here focuses largely on woman's maternal, domestic role. In "The Manger" (1901), she sets woman and infant in flowing white within a stark stable, putting a vaguely contemporary spin on the legend of Jesus' birth. Kasebier's "The Heritage of Motherhood," a picture of a middle-aged woman alone in a spare landscape, her hands clenched, imploring, visualizes a less idyllic condition further along on the chronological continuum of parenting.

Pamela Colman Smith, the first woman to have a solo show at Stieglitz's 291 gallery in New York, is harder to slot neatly into the show's theme. Her watercolors have a mystical, literary quality, of a piece with the robed figures in her illustrated deck of Tarot cards. With only a few works to represent her, Katharine Nash Rhoades is also an elusive figure. A printed image from the journal 291 is crisp and abstract, whereas her paintings -- a portrait, a rhythmic array of flowers, a "Dream Landscape" -- are more romanticized.

Stieglitz gave his niece, Georgia Engelhard ("Georgia minor" to the family), a show when she was just 10. Her watercolors have the innocence and purity that he valued in children, and a later canvas capably imitates the other Georgia's style. Although their lives and positions in the Stieglitz circle are discussed thoroughly in Pyne's book, in the exhibition Smith, Rhoades and Engelhard come across as mere footnotes to the central theme: O'Keeffe and the way Stieglitz saw her.

He claimed to have known immediately upon seeing her work for the first time, in 1916, that it was made by a woman -- something, he said, about the sensitivity of the line. One of the early charcoal drawings here from her first show at 291 is a quiet gem. One can read in its rhythmic gesture and energy the compositional lessons learned from her teacher Arthur Wesley Dow as well as the effect of her repeated readings of Kandinsky's "On the Spiritual in Art."

O'Keeffe and Stieglitz married in 1924. By then, she was well launched, with a distinctive style based on distilled natural forms. In her paintings of flowers, especially, she emphasized sensuous physicality above description or context. She zoomed in on curves and clefts, ripples and folds, to create images of beauty but also startling intimacy -- inventing a genre that might be called botanical nudes.

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