THE BEYOND: GEORGIA O’KEEFFE AND CONTEMPORARY ART
Through Sunday, Jan. 20
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh
Experiencing Georgia O’Keeffe in 2018 presents a common dilemma: How to see afresh a beloved artist whose work has undergone a century’s worth of mythologizing? A painter of big skies and big colors, O’Keeffe was fiercely individualistic, yet she means something intensely personal to many people. She was a pioneer of radical visual perspectives who, with her cropped botanical studies, reframed our relationship with the fractions of the natural world, inviting us to look a little closer, a little longer. But her popular reputation and exhibits have often been clouded by a kind of feminine mysticism.
Thankfully, that cloud disperses in the unusually clear-headed exhibit The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Art, which debuted in May at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas before moving to the North Carolina Museum of Art on October 13, where it will remain through January. The exhibit examines O’Keeffe’s themes by considering her alongside emerging artists who follow in her footsteps in different ways.
The O’Keeffe works range from watercolors made in 1916, when she was an art teacher in South Carolina, to works from the 1970s, when her eyesight was beginning to fail. These images are particularly poignant; titular painting “The Beyond,” an abstract blue horizon painted in 1972, is an eye-catching revelation with a great tenderness seeping through the bold coloring. In between, you’ll find all the luminescent moon-faced Jimson weeds, defiant cityscapes, and stripped-down visions of the American Southwest you’d expect.
Fifty-three works by twenty contemporary artists are featured alongside the thirty-four O’Keeffe paintings, loosely grouped around themes like cityscapes, botanicals, and abstractions. In a moment when women’s experiences are being skewed and outright erased, this no-nonsense framing of O’Keeffe’s work feels like a balm. The contemporary works come in a broad range of mediums and with many messages, from Jennifer Packer’s putrid funerary bouquets—painted in response to police violence—to Britny Wainwright’s floral ceramic sculptures, which seek to challenge the “hierarchy of form and ornament.”
Of particular note in the landscape section is Cynthia Daignault’s “Light Atlas,” a wall comprised of 360 postcard-size oil paintings that represent a 360-degree mural of an American road trip. Though Daignault’s inquiry into the American imagination is more suburban than anything O’Keeffe ventured, their interest in extraordinary perspectives on ordinary scenes is well-paired.
Speaking of, The Beyond is ticketed with an exhibit by the German photographer Candida Höfer, known for large-format color images of empty spaces. Adjacent to the O’Keeffe exhibit are twenty-five of her elephantine photographs of public spaces in Mexico—museums, churches, and libraries—created with painstaking research, technique, and an army of assistants. They nearly induce vertigo, so great is their scale. After spending time in the downy nucleus of a flower, it’s nice to feel small again.
As an artist, O’Keeffe seemed largely uninterested in being either categorized or overthought. Unfortunately, there’s never been a shortage of psychoanalytic readings of her work. Predictably, her husband, Alfred Stieglitz—the legendary gallery owner and photographer—introduced the idea that her floral studies were vulvic in the 1930s, a theory that was later resuscitated by the second-wave feminists of the 1970s and has stuck around ever since.
But O’Keeffe rejected the sexualization of her work, stating once that “when people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.” She was interested in proportion and ways of seeing, not being “woman as Life Giver,” as a 1922 Vanity Fair piece once cloyingly said.
O’Keeffe also rejected the idea that she was remarkable only as a female artist. “Men put me down as the best woman painter,” she once said. “I think I’m one of the best painters.” She wanted to be an artist without modifiers: not just an icon of avant-garde workwear, not just the sensual muse of Stieglitz, and not as a female artist notable only among other female artists.
An O’Keeffe centennial exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum last fall examined the ways that she asserted her “progressive, independent lifestyle through a self-crafted public persona,” showcasing her signature kimonos and blouses alongside portraits of her by the likes of Ansel Adams and Annie Leibowitz—and Stieglitz, who famously took more than three hundred. It’s fair to expect that, for admirers of an artist obsessed with the aesthetic of shapes, the obsessively curated shapes of her wardrobe might also be of interest.
Still, it’s also fair—and maybe necessary—to wonder what O’Keeffe might have thought of her ballet flats being given equal footing alongside her massive renderings of cow skulls. A female artist whose minimalist aesthetics are often embraced in maximalist fashion by the Instagram generation, it can be all too easy to look at O’Keeffe’s flowers and merely see what we’ve been told is there, or to look at one of her marvelous abstractions and think only of what she wore to paint them.
What The Beyond does so well is adding dimensions to the ways we might normally see O’Keeffe. Though her flowers receive curatorial attention, they are not the focus. Neither is her iconography. Instead, her work itself is given fresh perspective by the many perspectives surrounding it. In a season when the demands of women are being so thoroughly unheard and unmet, it’s a relief that one of the twentieth century’s greatest artists is being shown on her own terms, as an artist among artists, enduringly contemporary and larger than life.