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Published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 3, 2000. All rights reserved.

The Prowess & Puzzle of Georgia O’Keeffe


The intensity of Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistic expression

was matched, over the course of her long career, by an almost equal

intensity of public debate. Admired by many, she was dismissed by

some of the art world’s most influential figures. A critical tug-of-war

raged around the artist from the time of her first solo exhibition

of 1917 to her ascendancy as America’s most prominent woman artist.

And this was a debate from which O’Keeffe did not shrink.

Now the terms of this debate have at last been defined with the recent

publication of "The Georgia O’Keeffe Catalogue Raisonne."

Catalog author Barbara Buhler Lynes and contributor Judith Walsh come

to Princeton to give a lecture on the process, "Finding Paintings,

Solving Puzzles: The Georgia O’Keeffe Catalogue Raisonne," at

the annual meeting of the Friends of the Art Museum, Princeton University.

The illustrated talk takes place Tuesday, May 9, at 4 p.m., in McCosh

10, followed by an Art Museum reception. Both are free to the public.

Author Barbara Buhler Lynes is curator of the collection at the newly

established Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, as well

director of its emerging research center. Walsh is senior paper conservator

at the National Gallery of Art.

Each volume of the two-volume catalog comprises 600 pages of illustrations

and text. It reproduces and describes 2,045 objects made by O’Keeffe

between 1901 and 1984. Of these, an astounding 2,029 were located

and examined personally by Lynes between June, 1992, and December,


"It’s so calm and seamless now. The process was so chaotic and

noisy," says Lynes in an early morning telephone call from her

home in Santa Fe. Although the pressure of six-and-a-half years’ sustained

effort to produce the 1,200-page tome is behind her, she is still

willing to start her work day with a 7 a.m. interview.

"The catalogue raisonne, for me, anyway, shows a lot about how

O’Keeffe thought about color and about composition," she says.

"The formal issues of her work are so distilled. She looked at

the world around her. She absorbed and synthesized. She never lost

her identity. And she refused to be a victim of the criticism."

Lynes knows O’Keeffe’s wide appeal has been both her

blessing and a curse. "I think her work has such wide appeal because

it creates a space in which people can interact with her images —

all kinds of different people. And there’s the appeal of the intensity,

the directness, a persuasiveness that draws people into the work and

engages them. When other artist do that they’re praised — Giotto,

Picasso, Matisse — but when O’Keeffe does it, it can be dismissed

as popularizing."

At the new O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, O’Keeffe’s own ideas about

the thorny issue of interpretation are emblazoned in the entry space:

"The meaning of a word to me is not as exact as the meaning of

a color," wrote O’Keeffe. "Colors and shapes make a more definite

statement than words. I am often amazed at the spoken and written

word telling me what I have painted. Where I was born and where and

how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where

I have been that should be of interest."

Lynes says her decision to exclude from her catalogue raisonne a single

major interpretive essay or extensive interpretive comments on individual

works respects O’Keeffe’s idea of what she was about. "She always

implied that the work was the only real task of an artist: it must

be allowed to speak for itself," says Lynes.

"I want the work to speak for itself, but I’ve also tried to quote

as much as I can from O’Keeffe’s own remarks about the work,"

she adds. This effort includes matching appropriate commentary from

O’Keeffe’s own writings, such as her 1976 book "Georgia O’Keeffe,"

with the catalog entries. An intriguing appendix in volume two features

installation photographs of O’Keeffe’s earliest shows at Alfred Stieglitz’s

galleries as well as exhibition notes written by the artist to accompany

her shows.

From the first pages of the first volume of the catalogue raisonne,

a reader is struck by the early appearance of motifs that remained

essential to O’Keeffe throughout her life: architectural forms; flowers;

vases and vessels with monumental, simplified shapes. While the catalog

will be indispensable to most libraries and museums, it is also a

work that any lover of O’Keeffe’s art will covet — at a list price

of $195.

O’Keeffe was a prolific, successful artist whose work was exhibited

continually throughout her career. Born in 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin,

she began her art studies in 1905, on the cusp of the 20th century,

at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago; in 1907 she went on

to study with William Merritt Chase at the Art Students League in

New York. There she paid her first visits to Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery,

known as "291."

In 1912 O’Keeffe took a two-year post as an art supervisor and teacher

in public schools in Amarillo, Texas, her first introduction to the

American West that would become so important to her. She also studied

during this period at Columbia Teachers College with Arthur Wesley

Dow. Her New York art visits to 291, the most progressive venue in

New York, included exhibitions of works by Braque, Picasso, Marsden

Hartley, and John Marin.

In 1916, friend and classmate Anita Pollitzer showed a group of O’Keeffe’s

abstract drawings to Stieglitz, who subsequently exhibited them without

her knowledge. When O’Keeffe went to Stieglitz to demand the exhibition’s

dismantling, he convinced her otherwise. Their romance began almost

immediately, and the following year, 1917, Stieglitz presented O’Keeffe’s

first solo exhibition. Stieglitz ended his first marriage and wed

O’Keeffe in 1924.

Barbara Lynes never met O’Keeffe, who died in 1986, a time when Lynes

was developing her first book "O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and the Critics,

1916-1929," published in 1991. An avid reader of O’Keeffe’s numerous

letters, she was eager to tackle the Herculean task of a career catalog.

"I was willing because I knew that her records were there and

they provided a firm basis on which to construct a total output,"

Lynes says. "There was so much documentation in terms of photographs,

criticism, and works of art, that it was a really fascinating puzzle

— lots of pieces to work with. It fascinated me to try to come

to terms with what she had done."

Lynes sees Stieglitz and his avant-garde circle as profoundly

influential on the course of O’Keeffe’s career.

"Stieglitz had been looking for a woman artist," Lynes explains.

"He really believed women could be equal with men in terms of

their ability to be artists. The problem was that despite his innovative

position, he still had one foot in the 19th century, because he basically

saw O’Keeffe’s art as an expression of her sexual being. Now in fact

he felt that way about all art — he equated sexual energy to artistic

energies for both genders. It just didn’t stick when he talked about

men," says Lynes.

"I believe she moved away from innovative abstraction when she

realized that her art was being interpreted primarily in Freudian

terms. She continued to do provocative imagery, but she really grounded

her imagery in the recognizable."

Despite Lynes’ previous research, she was astonished to discover how

much of O’Keeffe’s best work remained in her estate after her death.

The reason: "She had a sense early on that she was going to be

somebody important; and she knew she was with somebody who was already


"O’Keeffe learned a great deal from Stieglitz about her art and

what she believed it meant. And she kept back a lot of really important

things. She had a very keen sense of what she had done, and she was

very careful to place her work in specific institutions."

"She made a will in 1979 listing 53 major pictures that she wanted

to go to specific institutions around the country. She tried to orchestrate

her collection so that when she died there was a phenomenal amount

of good work that would be going to institutions that would ultimately

help define her in the way she wanted to be defined."

In 1994, paper conservator Judith Walsh joined the project, initially

to help Lynes unframe the works on paper. With her technical expertise,

the two became familiar with working habits that were previously unknown.

Attesting to the controversial artist’s enduring importance is the

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The private museum

was founded in 1995 by philanthropists and part-time Santa Fe residents

Anne and John Marion. Opened to the public in July, 1997, it describes

itself as the first museum dedicated to the work of a woman artist

of international stature.

Housed in a converted church near the city’s central plaza, the collection

comprises more than 120 works by O’Keeffe. Subjects range from the

artist’s iconic flowers and bleached desert skulls to nudes, landscapes,

cityscapes, still lifes, and abstracts. The O’Keeffe Museum Research

Center, set to open next year, will fund projects that relate O’Keeffe

and American Modernism.

Lynes is confident that the catalog will serve to maintain O’Keeffe’s

place as an innovative American artist who made a major contribution

to American art.

"One thing it makes clear: O’Keeffe does not throw paint around,"

she says. "She was a meticulous artist. She never got to a point

when the materials became the key issue and she never abandoned the

tie with nature."

Now Lynes passes along the fruits of her efforts to upcoming generations

of scholars.

"There’s a huge debate in art history between theory and factual

information," she says, "but this is both a theoretical and

a factual work. I’m hoping it will provoke a lot of new ideas and

new approaches in ways of thinking about O’Keeffe."

— Nicole Plett

Finding Paintings, Solving Puzzles: The Georgia O’Keeffe

Catalogue Raisonne , Friends of the Art Museum, McCosh 10,

Princeton University, 609-258-3788. An illustrated lecture by Barbara

Buhler Lynes and Judith Walsh. A reception follows. Free. Tuesday,

May 9, 4:30 p.m.

For information on the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe,

go to www.okeeffemuseum.orgor call 505-995-0785.

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