"Well, I'm through," said photographer Alfred Stieglitz in April 1917 as he closed up shop at 291, the progressive art gallery that had become a regular meeting place for the New York avant-garde. "But," he added triumphantly, "I have given the world a woman!"
Over the years, Stieglitz, whose renown as a critic and curator was beginning to outstrip his glowing reputation as the man who finally brought photography into the realm of fine art, had introduced America to the works of such notable European artists as Rodin and Matisse. He had been the first person to show works by such provocative Americans as Arthur Dove, Charles Demuth, and Marsden Hartley. But in spite of all this, he believed that introducing the world to a female artist as accomplished and progressive as any male painter of the day was by far his greatest achievement. The painter in question was Georgia O'Keeffe, a young art teacher who would eventually become Stieglitz's second wife.
O'Keeffe was no doubt seething on the inside over her lover's comment, though she never said as much. Could anyone -- even Stieglitz, whose opinion she held in the highest regard -- make such a self-serving comment? A comment that was ultimately so dismissive of her own inherent potency? O'Keeffe hadn't just fallen off the tomato truck, after all. She made up her mind to become a great artist when she was still a child in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. Nobody gave her to the world; she flung herself at it. And while there was something decidedly feminine about her work, she hated being labeled a "female artist." She was clearly interested in helping define her gender outside the pervasive confines of the male perspective, but she didn't want to be defined by her gender.
There is something missing from the Brooks Museum of Art's exhibit "Georgia O'Keeffe and the Calla Lily in American Art 1860-1940": the spirit of Georgia O'Keeffe. The exhibit's title implies that O'Keeffe's work will dominate the landscape or, at the very least, set the standard by which all the other works are to be judged. Neither is the case. Of the 30 artists (painters and photographers all) collected for this exhibit, O'Keeffe is, in terms of sheer numbers, perhaps the best represented. Her contemporary and compatriot at 291, Marsden Hartley, ranks a close second. But, of all O'Keeffe's work, only one rather small painting from 1923, Calla Lily with Red Background, seems to capture the sexual energy and not-so-fragile beauty that set her apart from the pack. In it, two curvaceous fields of deep red part like thighs and between them rests a calla lily, its jagged edges seeming every bit as dangerous as its folds seem inviting. The yellow stamen wickedly asserts itself. In spite of this remarkable piece, O'Keeffe is not truly the star of this star-studded exhibit: the calla lily is. The often poster-ized O'Keeffe, whose name and reputation have only grown since her death 20 years ago, has merely been given top billing to broaden the exhibit's popular appeal.
Though O'Keeffe often painted clouds, trees, and scenes from the American Southwest, she also tried her hand at precisionism as well as completely abstract experiments with color and form. Still, she is probably best known for her large flower paintings. She was certainly not the first painter to devote herself to the tried-and-true subject matter, not even the first modern. As calla lilies go, that honor belongs to Hartley. But O'Keeffe brought something to her florals that had never really been there before: a social theory.
"Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower," she said. "I want them to see it whether they want to or not." With this statement, her work became a kind of social realism in reverse: recognizing the rush and crush of urban life, the artwork itself screams, "Stop and smell the roses." Or at least the calla lilies. It is this kind of command that is missing from the Brooks' exhibit.
A mid-1930s drawing by Kalman Kubin places a potted calla lily down in the middle of a city, with smoke-belching factories in the background and with trains, trucks, and skyscrapers flanking it. A discarded newspaper with the emphatic headline "Yanks Win!" threatens to cover the flower, and people walk by without seeming to even notice it. Kubin's piece is a perfect visual essay of O'Keeffe's rationale, but nowhere in the exhibit's text is this point made clear.
If you aren't an art historian, or at least an avid horticulturist, you might find yourself wandering around this exhibit dumbly muttering, "Calla Lily, calla lily, calla lily " -- the repetition of form can be that numbing. But if you can avoid this fate, there are some definite wonders to behold. Man Ray's Calla Lily is every bit as darkly erotic as any of his famous portraits of Kiki. Marguerite Zorach's 1916 painting New England Family is a bourgeoisie precursor to American Gothic as seen through the eyes of a German expressionist. Charles Demuth's nonrepresentational portrait of vaudeville's premier drag performer Bert Savoy is a masterpiece of both kitsch and graphic design. Hartley's paintings, while not nearly as interesting as his own nonrepresentational portraits, dominate the show, and they have to be seen in person to be appreciated. The textures are that nice and that important. And if you feel let down by the O'Keeffes, you can always seek out a small, dark, pre-1900s painting by Anna Sellers. As delicate and detailed as a Rembrandt, this piece places a calla lily on a black background between two exploding red geraniums. The folds of the white flower are positively pornographic, and yet there can be little doubt that this was intended to be nothing more than the exact representation of a flower. Except for sheer presence, this little painting has everything you could ever want from even the largest O'Keeffe and, in its lack of presumption, much, much more. n
"Georgia O'Keeffe and the Calla Lily in American Art: 1860-1940" is at the Brooks Museum throughMay 4th.