Her blowups of blossoms are a standard in European poster shops, alongside reproductions of Andy Warhol’s images and prints of Arnold Schwarzenegger. But most Europeans have only scant if any knowledge of the art of Georgia O’Keeffe, icon of early American modernism. Just three European museums are known to own a small number of her paintings, most of them obtained only in the past decade. And reference to her work in European art literature is limited or even lacking.
In an ambitious effort to deepen the appreciation of O’Keeffe’s creative role in American art, Zurich’s Kunsthaus has opened a broad-ranged retrospective featuring highlights of almost 50 years of her artistic career.
Christoph Keller, director of the prestigious museum, calls the exhibition, which runs through Feb. 1, 2004, a “dream come true.” It features 74 paintings, watercolors and other pieces, most of them loaned by museums and private collectors in the United States. A few have never been on public view.
A phalliclike, white-lacquered bronze cast from a sculpture dated 1916 recalls the stir when critics, influenced by Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytical theories about the unconscious, saw O’Keeffe’s works as clearly sexual.
Helping to shape that image was photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who with his “291” gallery in New York was an early promoter of European avant-garde in the United States but who also was determined to foster an indigenous American art.
Over O’Keeffe’s objections, Stieglitz exhibited a series of her charcoal drawings in 1916 that sparked the debate about the sensuality in her art. Two years later, Stieglitz left his wife and moved in with O’Keeffe, 23 years his junior.
Nude photographs he then took of her boosted the sexual image when they were shown in 1921.
Bice Curiger, curator of the show, said that right at the start of O’Keeffe’s career, “through the instrumentalization of the unconscious, she was reduced to her sex.”
Flowers and sex
Writing in the 220-page exhibition catalog, Curiger noted that O’Keeffe “insists quite early that she is expressing an emotion in her pictures, not merely sexuality but the whole psyche.”
But critics stuck to what Curiger terms an “overheated sexual interpretation.”
One of them, Marsden Hartley, wrote in 1921 that O’Keeffe’s paintings and drawings “are probably as living and shameless private documents as exist.”
American art historian Carter Ratcliff, co-author of the catalog, said that while O’Keeffe rejected the sexual reading of her intentions, “these writers, spurred on by Stieglitz, were making her famous.”
Her reputation received a new stimulant from the magnified flowers she started painting in 1924. Samples of this lush and suggestive series are on view in Zurich.
Local critic Gerhard Mack, writing about the show in the Zurich newspaper NZZ am Sonntag, said it was “rather embarrassing or tiring today” that the flower pictures “at first view look like estheticized genital botany.”
Such innuendo is absent in the impressive New York cityscapes that O’Keeffe began in 1925, a year after marrying Stieglitz, when they moved into a small 30th-story suite of the Shelton Hotel. Four canvases presented at the show tell of her fascination with skyscrapers as a subject.
As in her landscapes, humans and animals are invariably missing from the 30 or so paintings she did of the city. “One can’t paint New York as it is but rather as it’s felt,” she once said.
The show makes clear that O’Keeffe, the child of Wisconsin dairy farmers, continued to give preference to floral and countryside motifs. And she was captivated by the desert landscape of New Mexico, which she first saw on a visit to friends. She made the state her permanent home in 1949, three years after Stieglitz died.
Bleached bones she gathered from the desert made her start a new group of exquisite still lifes. A deer’s skull spectacularly framed by a blue sky was reproduced for the Zurich show’s poster. Inscribed on the walls of the exhibit is an oft-cited O’Keeffe pronouncement that she used the bones as she used flowers, seashells or rocks — “to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it.”
Her curving “Winter Road I,” a 1963 masterpiece, makes the cover illustration of the exhibition catalog. Emphasis, too, is on several of her magnificent, abstracted cloudscapes. Up to 7 feet wide, they contrast both in format and style with the figurative “Apple Family” she painted in a 1920 on a canvas, measuring a mere 8 inches by 10 inches.
The cloudscapes were among O’Keeffe’s last major works before her eyesight began to deteriorate in 1967. But she continued to paint and to travel. She was 99 when she died in 1986, and her ashes were scattered over the New Mexico landscape she loved so much.
A few months before her death, one of her paintings — the 1930 “White Rose, New Mexico” — for the first time sold for more than $1 million at a New York auction. Among the Zurich exhibits is the first work she sold: “Train at Night in the Desert,” which fetched $400 in 1917.