Friday, June 23, 2017

Georgia O'Keeffe at the AGO

I was truly surprised to learn that Georgia O'Keeffe's relationship with Alfred Stieglitz was -- at least in its initial phase -- indeed a robustly carnal affair.
"Eyeh -- wassup, Alf?"
On university campuses in the late '80s it was de rigueur for the fellas (the more tasteful among us, at any rate) to festoon our dorm rooms with Escher prints. The gals got Georgia O'Keeffe. Each in their way signified a (dare I say?) gender-specific potentiality that may or may not have in fact existed -- playful abstractions belying an intellectual seriousness for the guys; a pointedly feminine and nearly explicit sensual in-touchedness for the ladies (So tread CAREFULLY, mister!).
"All these possibilities, before we stampede towards the..."
Consequently I've tended to view O'Keeffe's work as a little too coolly calculated, and perhaps not quite the idealized marriage of passion and intellect that others are keen to espouse on her behalf. Throw in her widely reported impatience with the common "Why, them's LADY-PARTS!" reaction to her floral paintings, and I think a (*sigh*) hetero late-in-mid-life dude could be forgiven for suggesting that just maybe "The lady doth protest."

Stieglitz was himself a hetero late-in-mid-life dude when he first encountered O'Keeffe (my present age exactly, in fact). His initial excitement over O'Keeffe was intellectual -- a mutual friend passed along some of O'Keeffe's early charcoal drawings, which Stieglitz promptly exhibited in his NYC gallery. It was some months before O'Keeffe found out about any of this; her response was to take the train up from South Carolina, where she was (assistant) teaching art, and personally bitch him out for showing her work without her consent (they want us to ask permission -- who knew?).

An epistolary relationship ensued and, erm, flowered. After two years of increasingly impassioned penmanship, she moved to New York City where Stieglitz arranged for a pair of modest suites -- for each to abide, separately, in presumed chastity, while Stieglitz figured out how best to divest himself of "Emmy," his long-suffering wife of 25 years. The ruse was abandoned within weeks and the ensuing genitive hijinx were duly Olympian.

Stieglitz was 52, O'Keeffe 29.

O'Keeffe was not the first woman in her late-20s to turn Stieglitz's head, nor was she to be the last, either. Still, what they had going for them seems to have worked out well for both (give or take a few nervous breakdowns), not just personally but professionally, and they remained married until he died 28 years later. Aside from her considerable chops as painter, O'Keeffe had the gift of Blarney, the absolutely indispensable trait of every successful artist, while Stieglitz took his camera and energetically competed for attention among the international avant garde and their very public avant garde proclivities (e.g., Nude Torso, etc). Attention was paid, with financial success in its wake.

Even an ideal marriage of passion and intellect was not enough to curb Stieglitz's impulse to philander, alas. Faced with her husband's infidelities, O'Keeffe eventually permitted herself a single fling -- with Stieglitz's one-time mistress Beck Strand. It was what it was. At the end of it all, O'Keeffe opted for a hermetic life in New Mexico, entertaining the occasional arty-type guest, while largely devoting the rest of her life to just doing the work.

And this was the work that finally "reached" me, when I surveyed the O'Keeffe exhibit at the AGO this past weekend.
Black Door With Red, 1954
Alongside My Last Door, 1955
By all means, supply the Freudian sub-text to my text -- I'll be the first to affirm it (if you know what I mean by "affirm" -- psh-HAW!). It was a Sunday -- Father's Day -- and I was cognizant of the many willowy young gals in their late-20s drawn to the show. Hey, the late-20s are an exciting time for either/any gender -- all that psychic experimentation and trying-on of costumes and attitudes is finally settling into an honest-to-God identity! What's next? Good question. I know a few people in your line of business -- want me to introduce you?

Of course, family and friends have assured me (unsolicited, I might add) of that which I am already well aware -- they can conjure no lower form of stoopid than to envision me stepping out on my lovely wife in hopes of reinvigorating myself with the affections of a younger woman.

Which leads me to my final thought on the show: Yo, gallerists and curators! These works weren't produced by gods who walked the earth, no matter what their stentorious claims at the time -- they're the byproduct of fallible primates, just like the rest of us, prone to some gobsmacking errors in personal judgement.

So how's about injecting a pinch of sass and irreverence into the "Great Artist" narrative already? Don't you think it's just a little way overdue?

2 comments:

paul bowman said...

Not as though I have anything to inform anyone reading here of by saying so, but the gallerists & curators who’ve made it undoubtedly owe their slot amid the economic strata to keeping that idea of the godlikeness of the artists — the dead ones particularly — alive. Maybe the best we can say for them is (to borrow a line from another figure notoriously accorded divinity by a perhaps not entirely disinterested class of professional impresarios, critics, & theoreticians in his wake) that they have their reward.

Whisky Prajer said...

Wal, shore -- give 'em a spot on Olympus and the rubes'll pay anything to see the work. Still, some years back there was a terrific Munch exhibit that included a little down-and-dirty gossip (including an x-ray of the hand that suffered a self-inflicted gunshot, suffered while having a lover's spat) as well as the spacier effects his super-serious work has had on the larger culture (Homer Simpson does The Scream, etc). It didn't take anything away from The Legend -- at least so far as I was concerned.