`On Paper' Draws New Look at O'Keeffe

Article excerpt

The marketing and publishing industries seem to own Georgia O'Keeffe. Calendars, books about her and T-shirts glut souvenir shops.

Add to that a slew of exhibitions of the late artist's work; her very own museum in Santa Fe, N.M.; the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation; scholarly symposiums; a just-published two-volume catalogue raisonne; and still another show at the National Gallery of Art, "O'Keeffe on Paper."

The hype around her personal life has the stuff of myth. She's been fictionalized as Galatea to art impresario-photographer Alfred Stieglitz's Pygmalion. Supposedly she was putty in the hands of Stieglitz, who married her.

At the beginning he pushed her work as "art by a woman," though he admired it. A photo of him opens the catalog of the "Paper" show along with hers.

The story usually goes like this: The artist was an unknown schoolteacher. A friend showed her work to Stieglitz, who ran the 291 Gallery of avant-garde art in New York. He liked it, promoted her creations and, presto, catapulted her to fame.

But it was not like that: The painter struggled like any other artist. In fact, Miss O'Keeffe decided she didn't want to be an artist in 1909 after winning a prize while studying at the Art Students League in New York. She believed that the imitative realism she had been taught was a dead-end. The painter experimented with styles but destroyed most of her work in 1918 after moving to New York from Texas.

"O'Keeffe on Paper," which includes some of these early efforts, opens tomorrow, exactly one year after a major showing of the artist's work at the Phillips Collection and 12 years after the National Gallery's centennial celebration of her birth, a show that traveled to New York, Dallas and Chicago.

Yet this 50-work survey of charcoals, pastels and watercolors reveals her in a new light, at once illuminating and handsome. Miss O'Keeffe (1887-1986) tried new ideas in these less weighty mediums, especially charcoals.

Zero in on the 1915 "No. 2 - Special," which may not look unusual but shows many of her future avenues. It was also shown at the Phillips last year. She was teaching at a small college in Columbia, S.C., while experimenting with charcoal. The artist also worked at night on her hands and knees on the rough wooden floors and made charcoals such as this one.

Miss O'Keeffe had studied under artist and art education reformer Arthur Wesley Dow in New York. Dow, drawing from Asian approaches to art, encouraged his pupils to concentrate on simple emotive shapes and colors. She also respected the radical Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky's theories of pure abstraction.

In that simple environment, Miss O'Keeffe turned to charcoal, the most rudimentary of all techniques. She drew with her whole arm, sweeping from the shoulder, grasping the stick upright, pushing it onto the paper beneath her while anticipating Jackson Pollock's dripping paint on canvas on the floor.

She wrote at the time: "It was the fall of 1915 that I first had the idea that what I had been taught was of little value to me. . . . I decided to start anew - to strip away what I had been taught - to accept as true my own thinking. . . . I began with charcoal and paper and decided not to use any color until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white."

In this "Special" she drew what could be tendrils of plants reaching up through earth or waves caressing a shore. The stamenlike object in the center predicts her later well-known flowers. She begins the vortexes of her shells, flowers and some of the landscapes here.

Exhibit curator Ruth E. Fine writes in the catalog: "American art of the twentieth century has been, in many ways, a wrestling match between representation and abstraction." This was not really the issue in Miss O'Keeffe's art, and she moved easily between the two.

Instead, the artist wanted to capture the essence of nature or objects in a monochromatic medium, much as did the ancient Buddhist monks about whom Dow wrote. …