Like many artists of the 20th Century, Georgia O’ Keeffe has been ill-served by museum gift shops. Her images have been so often reproduced on note cards, calendars and jewelry that when we hear of a O’ Keeffe exhibition our mental rolodexes flip to “Lily, Giant Calla” and we think to ourselves, “Oh, I know what that show will look like.”
Barbara Haskell, curator of the Whitney Museum’s of American Art is well aware of the problems she’s up against with the huge retrospective “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction.” The “charge against her has been that she’s ‘just a flower painter,’ ” says the curator. O’Keeffe’s work has even been dismissed, says Haskell, with that most damning of all art-world words: “Decorative.”
Which is why the Whitney show opening today, which will travel on for the next year (to The Phillips Collection, Feb. 6–May 9; the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, May 28–Sept. 12) is such a surprise. Actually, it blows away the bigger blockbuster shoes that have opened this season: Monet Water Lilies at the Museum of Modern Art (too cramped), Ron Arad (looks like an LES furniture store) and even, heinous as it is to say it, the Metropolitan’s Vermeer. (Great art, dense crowd, no surprises).
The Whitney show has its surprises. Refreshingly short on those borderline-saccharine big lilies and well-known Southwest art, it instead looks early in O’Keeffe’s career at her radical abstraction, luscious curls of color that presage color field painting, Frankenthaler, De Kooning and even Rothko by 50 years. She emerges as a purely American artist—born 1886, she lived in Wisconsin, Virginia, Texas, New York, Illinois, South Carolina and New Mexico in her 98 years—and one more ravenous in her use of color, and more strict with her use of line, light and darkness than is generally thought. Of course, many O’Keeffe works suggest the female anatomy or echo “feminine forms.” but the curators and organizers try to argue with that conventional wisdom about the artist, too, telling a little bit about her history.
O’Keeffe’s art got the rep for being all about sex, they argue, only after Alfred Stieglitz’s series of frank erotic photographs of her, steamy by both the standards of his day and ours, were shown in 1921. (Several are up at the Whitney.) In her letters, reproduced for the first time in the show’s catalogue, O’Keeffe writes that Stieglitz photographed her with “heat and excitement.” Since Stieglitz, 57, was still married and Georgia was more than two decades her junior, she became something of a “newspaper personality,” in the jargon of the day. By the time her next show opened in 1923, she was known as his mistress and the works were viewed narrowly through that lens. (In an interesting high-culture-meets-pop-culture-moment, a biopic on O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, starring Joan Allen and Jeremy Irons, premieres on Lifetime on Saturday, Sept. 19) A feminist rediscovery of her work from the 1970s didn’t help; while O’Keeffe hated being thought of as a woman artist, she was embraced and brushed up for posterity as exactly that.
O’Keeffe-as-painterly-anarchist is a not the easiest case for the Whitney curators to make, given her overexposure. But she did begin her career working under the tutelage of Arthur Wesley Dow, at Columbia, who is credited with the then-revolutionary idea that art shouldn’t try to capture nature but instead reflect the personality of the artist. Her work did that, and she’s also credited in the show with some other innovations — her style of closely cropping her subjects “so that they seem to extend beyond their frames…as if without measurable boundaries” for example. Her saturated colors, techniques of creating miniscule shadows, and velvety surfaces with minimal brushstrokes, appear to be inspiring artists today. Art students at the opening crowded up to her works, taking close-up photographs of small swathes of the painting to study her style.
Let’s hope they skip the gift shop.
In a changing of the guard, the Art Dealers Association of America has a new president: Lucy Mitchell-Innes, co-founder of Madison Avenue and Chelsea art dealership Mitchell-Innes & Nash.
The ADAA, founded in 1962 by a group that included Andre Emmerich and Eugene Thaw, is traditionally one of the more difficult art-world associations in which to to gain entrance. Mitchell-Innes is its first female president. Currently numbering 170 “very passionate” members, Mitchell-Innes says the among the projects she’ll be working on are the group’s “50 Artists for 50 States” program. ADAA is organizing the donation of 50 works of art by 50 living American artists in an effort to advance federal legislation which would allow artists to donate works to museums at fair market value.
Mitchell-Innes and her husband David Nash became high-profile art-world celebrities in the 1980s, dubbed the “boom duet.” Together they piloted the worldwide contemporary art department and Impressionist at departments at Sotheby’s through much of the 1980s art boom and subsequent market crash. Reportedly a series of rough exchanges with Sotheby’s then-president Diana “Dede” Brooks (who was later to be indicted for price-fixing in a Justice Department investigation of the auction house), was among several reasons that prompted Mitchell-Innes to leave to start her own gallery in 1994. Her husband followed in 1996. As private dealers, their clients have included Hollywood producers Douglas Kramer and Ray Stark, and Mitchell-Innes has sometimes acted as a private dealer for the Museum of Modern Art. The artists the gallery now represents include the estates of Jack Tworkov, Enoc Perez, Anthony Caro, Martha Rosler, Jessica Stockholder and Natalie Frank.
Mitchell-Innes replaces Roland Augustine of Luhring Augustine as AADA president. The group’s most prominent activity is its annual Art Show at the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. This year it will be held March 3-7, coinciding with several other art fairs including the Armory Show.
It’s no secret that the recession has juiced artist collectives, bringing more energy and attention to group scenes and dynamics. A slew of art shows and events this month celebrate the gang:
L.A. MoCA has named the Slanguage Collective its “artist group in residence” for the fall. It’s recent premier, “PsychiCinema,” featured film screenings and prom-night photographs against industrial backdrops. Last Friday, Bruce High Quality Foundation held an orientation for its ersatz new BHQF University in Tribeca: invitees were asked to sign up for real classes on “What is Metaphor.” (Discussion topics can include poems, dances, even you-tube videos.) Tonight THURS at I-20 Gallery in New York, a show that first premiered at San Francisco’s Cellspace is imported East as artist Sherry Wong pictures the Golden Gate city’s various collectives, from DJ’s to drag queens, in watercolors and drawings. And this weekend, curator Renee Riccardo has teamed up with a yoga instructor and her Facebook friends to host a picnic on Governors Island which includes both an outdoor exercise class and a curatorial tour of the island’s Creative Time and other arts installations.
Why all this group-think? Wong says “Because of the recession, many people lost a lot—money, possessions —and when they look around at what’s left, it’s their friends.” Also, in artist collectives, she notes, “You can accomplish things that were never possible alone.”