Georgia O’Keeffe at the Indianapolis Museum of Art
Yesterday, I went to the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the IMA they’re calling “Georgia O’Keeffe and the Southwestern Still Life.” The exhibit situates O’Keeffe among her contemporaries working in American art in the early to mid-20th century in the southwest. O’Keeffe was an American woman painter when they were few women respected as painters in the US. The exhibit shows how O’Keeffe was influenced by the terroir, the architecture and the Spanish and indigenous cultural elements of the southwest. By putting her alongside her peers, the exhibit shows how O’Keeffe was in dialogue with the abstractionists of the 20th century while maintaining her own voice (I was struck by the number of O’Keeffe’s peers who just painted guitars like Picasso). There were three claims that the exhibit seems to make that I took issue with: 1. that O’Keeffe’s work is not abstract; 2. that her bones are not about death; and 3. that her flowers are not sexual.
Each of these points is supported in part with O’Keeffe’s own words. I’m troubled by the impulse to privilege the artist’s interpretation of her work. I’m more troubled by the need to nail down once and for all what the works meant, the drive to exclude some meanings for the sake of others. In some cases, I want to suggest that O’Keeffe appears to be messing with us when she speaks about her art. In any case, the notion that some meaning cannot be found in the painting unless it was ‘put there’ requires a theory of art that suggests that art is meaningful through the conscious work of the artist. Art then in the Greek sense is purely Apollonian, consciously meaningful, philosophical. But if art is not just a tool of wisdom but a separate and significant domain wherein art is not just a product of conscious wisdom, but displaying the Dionysian, the madness, the unconscious frenzy that presents itself as a challenge to thought, then the artist is not the root of the meaning of the art work because the art work is controlled by neither the artist nor the philosopher.
- A series of paintings at the exhibit show O’Keeffe at her most abstract. Black Door with Snow (1955), Black Patio Door (1955), The Patio I (1946) and (bel0w) Black Door with Red (1954). O’Keeffe insists that while each of these is shapes on shapes that they are each about something, her door, her patio, her tiles. She says that there actually were red tiles on the wall around the door, so “It’s quite realistic.” Guest curator Harriet Warkel oversimplifies the sense of this claim when she says, “Georgia O’Keeffe never moves far from reality.” O’Keeffe has obviously here left behind “the slavish pursuit of realism,” influenced by such artists as Arthur Dow who was teaching at the University of South Carolina when she was in 1915. Her insistence that she was not an abstractionist appears, according to Henry McBride who reviewed her 1933 exhibition in the New York Sun, to have been a concession to “her public” who considered abstractionism European, which “being 100 percent American, she has never dare yield. Were she abstract, she’d lose her public, and as she has a considerable public, naturally she hates to do that” (quoted in Hunter Drohojowska-Philp’s Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe).
- Her many paintings of bones invoke for me the dual senses of the death and the beauty of the dry barrenness in the desert. In particular, the painting in this IMA exhibit at the very end, “It was a Man and a Pot” (1942) with a human skull inside a broken pot evokes the brokenness of mortality. O’Keeffe comments on her use of bones in her paintings, “The bones do not symbolize death to me, they were shapes that I enjoy. It never occurs to me that they have anything to do with death. They are very lively.” (From the iPad interviews viewable at the exhibit.) Again, I wondered why she so insisted. That the bones are lively and beautiful and part of the landscape that O’Keeffe has come to foreground in her paintings don’t seem to make them less about death but to complicate our understanding of death as dark and distant and to be avoided. O’Keeffe sees death in the landscape and makes it a part of things. I was just reading Foucault’s last chapter of his lectures, “Security Must be Defended,” where he explains that in the regime of biopolitics, death disappears. O’Keeffe by contrast makes death appear and thereby forces us to reckon with it in an age in which reckoning with death is the last thing we collectively want to do and now seem capable of doing.
- Finally, in an exhibit with still lifes, we expect to see flowers shaped like female genitalia. But none of the really sexualized flowers are in the exhibit. It is almost as if the curators tried to find the non-sexualized flowers in order to support their case that the flowers aren’t really about sexuality.
An interview on the iPads in the exhibit show O’Keeffe saying, “They were talking about their own self not about me,” in reference to those who say that the flowers were about sexuality. That might be the case, of course, but that doesn’t mean that the flowers aren’t sexual. In fact, a recent study from Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania suggests that Georgia O’Keeffe paintings look more erotic to a woman when she is fertile. So turns out O’Keeffe was right–it is about their own self! But it seems likely that O’Keeffe would not announce that that was the meaning of the painting, just as she insists she isn’t an abstractionist. But how she must have laughed at those good respectable ladies with the abstract vaginas on their walls! Keep in mind that O’Keeffe also wrote, “I feel like there is something unexplored about woman that only woman can explore.”
I think each of these instances of O’Keeffe’s account of her work shows how the artist can speak under certain restrictions and expectations while the art remains powerful and forceful unimpeded by the artist’s apology of it.
So yes, there are some issues with the curation of this exhibit. I was put off by the use of the term “Hispanic” to describe the influences in the Southwest. The term collapses the Spanish and the indigenous influences in a way that eclipses the differences. Yes, there are Spanish influences (adobe houses) and they could be noted separately from the Pueblo and Hopi and Navajo influences (pottery, textile and religious practices) with a little more careful work which we should expect from curators. Calling American Indian practices Hispanic is troubling because it suggests that they are what they are from the Spanish influence and not that the Spanish has become affected by those it colonized. If the practices and backgrounds are mestiza that too should and could be noted. I should say though that while the audio tour was a bit simplistic, the segments that captured the impressions that visitors to the exhibit had in response to certain paintings were remarkably poetic and communicated the art’s force, particularly its capacity to hold conflicting notions together at once. I particularly appreciated the responses to “Pelvis and the Distance,” which people called dreamlike and surreal and one museum goer said of it, “It makes me feel small and big at the same time.”