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