Walking away Georgia O'keeffe's Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum, I am aware of my own pressing, exorbitantly high expectation that could not reasonably have been met. Regardless, it generated an examination of a longstanding relationship with the artist's work.
Having just come back from my time off grid along Abiquiu’s Chama River, I felt the spirit of O’keeffe’s work in my desert bleached bones. It permeated my body like a drug in a profound, ineffable way. I kept coming back to Keith Hamilton Basso’sWisdom Sits in Places and the importance of allowing one to create direct, unmediated experience with place. It is becoming clear to me that most of all this takes commitment and uninterrupted time, a rare and precious resource in our attention deficit, rapidly digitizing world.
Route 84 runs through Abiquiu and if you aren’t looking, you’ll miss the pueblo entirely. On the right is the historic Abiqiui Inn and Georgia O’keefe Home and Museum. A stone’s throw down the road is Bode’s General Store, with its own historical significance. If you keep driving, you’ll be on your way to Colorado before you know it. But like many charged places in the world, if you’re paying attention, something comes over you and you inevitably slow down, especially at dusk or dawn below the red sun hanging like a fire ball in the turquoise sky.
I’ve known O’keeffe’s work since I was a child. My mother still has a long, glossy address book where she keeps the names and phone numbers of family members who have since dispersed all over the world. Written in a mix of Cyrilic, English and her own special math code (she still signs her emails L=M), that book is an archive of all the people she loves. Over the years it has gathered more names, collected scribbled out addresses and protected faded pencil lines. O’keeffe’s collection of 100 Flowers is on the cover with yellow lilies on the front and black and white callas on the back. Unknown to me, I associated those images with my mother’s private archive, her soothing telephone voice and her personal codes. I saw the images of those flowers before I knew who O’keeffe was or the role she would play in my own artistic development.
The word ‘iconic’ is thrown all around the Brooklyn Museum show to prevent any doubt that O’keeffe is an American icon. An icon, in addition to having spiritual association, is also used when personal identity is overshadowed by what one represents, when one ceases to be a human with all her inconclusive complexities and becomes a symbol, clear, bright, defined and digestible. O’keeffe has been called one of the ‘iconic figures in modern American art, celebrated for her early abstractions and paintings of flowers and animal bones.’ The show also describes her as an ‘unintentional icon of feminism and fashion’, a statement my mind keeps attempting to maneuver around and digest.
Studying painting in my early teens, I rejected O’keeffe’s work for what my naïve mind perceived as flat, awkward composition lacking the viscosity and body I craved. I preferred the expressionistic brush strokes of Max Beckmann or the detailed bodily contortions of Egon Schiele. My angst ridden spirit needed something palpable and dramatic to identify with in painting. O’keeffe’s sense of drama is more subdued, mature and sophisticated in a way that I couldn’t comprehend or digest at the time. Still those stark, austere compositions made an impression on me. What brought me back to O’keeffe’s paintings was ultimately seeing the things she saw, falling in love with the desert the way I imagine she must have. I was about sixteen when I first saw the red canyon meet the Southwest sky in a way that felt nothing less than out of this world. If earth could look like this, I could reconcile with it being my home.
During my 2011 residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute, I visited a small, austere collection of O’keeffe’s work in the heart of town. Housed behind a quiet courtyard, the collection showed mid sized works by the artist, mostly paintings in black and white. Being a little older, the work struck me as subdued and tight, powerful in what they wouldn’t reveal. There was an evident resistance in her touch. A true painter’s painter, I could see the rigor and precision with which she made each mark. I was recently asked if I was synesthetic, and the closest experience I’ve had to this is seeing O’keeffe’s painting in that show. It was like listening to Chopin, becoming slowly aware of its quiet complexity, without ever being invited completely inside. The work was the ultimate game of seduction. The second part of that small exhibition was equally profound. Carefully arranged, life sized tableaus of the O’keeffe’s camping set up were arranged through out the gallery. A neatly stationed tent, a single blue mug, an arrangement of walking equipment quietly gazed at me from their exhibition stage. I sensed Her presence there, the specter of her decisions. I felt the same electric charge as I did from the red rock of Ghost Ranch. In that room, I wasn’t haunted, I was possessed. And this possession drew me to return to New Mexico over and over again, ultimately drawing me to the same spots on the Chama river to quietly contemplate Wisdom Sits in Places.
When I walked through the halls of the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, I experienced a wholly other kind of sensation. I sensed the presence of a figure, twice removed, a shell or a paper doll of a woman who’s identity had been recreated by men and institutions. I felt the cult of celebrity and its inevitable shaping of one’s persona. Even though I adore garments and all of their cultural significance, (no doubt O’keeffe had excellent taste) I was perplexed by the twisted emphasis on O’keeffe’s commitment to fashion. For me, it feels like a projection onto her, an attempt to compete with other institutional successes such as the Met’s recent Commes de Garcon show (which despite its antiseptic aesthetic creates a deeply visceral experience) Walking into Living Modern I confront three ghostly crisp, completely intact white cottons blouses hanging eerily, reminding me of paper-doll cutout books. I feel offered a variety of outfit choices for me to imagine dressing our heroine. The entire exhibition seems to mimic the problematic formula often encountered in fashion magazine’s interviews with successful women. ‘What is she wearing?’ overshadows every other aspect of the maker’s life, decisions, and complexity.
There is no doubt that O’keeffe was a stylish woman, and her tastes and decisions were part of a larger set of principles. I’m inclined to believe she was aware of the way in which her clothing, her look, her ‘persona’ contributed to a larger strategy for her to be able to live as she did. It is hard to imagine a pioneering woman artist who was naïve to this complex network of representation and visibility, whether she admits it or not. (I would argue its denial is a part of the strategy) It is that same seductive quality that comes through in O’keeffe’s painting, that resistance to being named. But I am surprised that in the midst of today’s given discourses of identity, feminism and art world politics, we so brazenly embrace and even celebrate this as something ‘iconic’ rather than a strategic necessity. That we resist unpacking the implications of aestheticizing oneself so comprehensively in order to negotiate the performative aspect of career and opportunity. That outside the scope of lifestyle branding and expertly executed design, O’keeffe’s contribution to art ranges so much beyond a ‘visually pleasing aesthetic.’
In recent recognition of my own conflicted relationship to media, internet and digitization, I have made efforts to make certain experiences ‘digital free zones.’ Museum visits, for me, are one of those zones, where I make concerted effort to lean into my immediate five senses, knowing if I really crave a haptic connection I take a note on the name of the artist to independently research later on. When I go to a place, I try to allow my body, first and foremost to be in and off that place. That is my living interpretation of Basso's seminal essay.
My mother’s address book was a relic of a time just before digitization. In its own way, it was an early mediated experience for me. I saw the image of O’keeffe’s work in 2D, and its impression later brought me back to having an embodied experience of O’keeffe’s world. As I wander through the galleries of tiny flashing phones seeking geo codes and informational text messages about the show, I am overcome by a combination of questioning and sadness. Would these new digitized mediated experiences lead to fuller, deeper entry into the artist’s work outside of tips on lifestyle branding and best selfie angle? Or would the experience of Georgia’s ghost be a transparent shadow as transient as each recycled fashion trend, rather than a life altering, desert shaking, full bodied possession?