A woman's art that men refuse to see

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The Independent Online
THIS IS a confession. I'm coming out. I love Georgia O'Keeffe.

I've never seen her on a chocolate box, calendar or a postcard - unlike Giotto, Leonardo, Constable, Rembrandt, Turner, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Matisse and Hockney. And while art critics have never criticised Caravaggio or Cezanne for adorning jigsaws and greetings cards, to a man they have curled their lips and attributed O'Keeffe's stature in American art to the chocolate boxes and a vast constituency of, presumably, fat feminists.

A phallic posse of art critics has publicly growled its grumbles. The scrum has spoken: look at Georgia O'Keeffe, and you'll see] There are no great women artists] Confident in their contempt, national newspaper art critics do not think it necessary to explain or empathise with her audience, to engage feminists' complex critique of O'Keeffe, or to locate her in the history of American modernism, save as Alfred Stieglitz's gal.

Thus she is separated from her intellectual community, rendered an isolated creator. Thus do the critics absolve themselves from scrutiny of modernism as a passionately masculine cultural project. And what do they say about her? 'Quite simply, not very good,' says the Independent's Andrew Graham-Dixon, who claims she had the 'limited talents of the commercial artist, but the ambition to be remembered as a Rembrandt'.

Her paintings 'made good monthly images on calendars, excellent postcards, ideal postage stamps', says the Observer's William Feaver. 'Irredeemably amateur,' writes Brian Sewell in the London Evening Standard, where he reckons the only difference between her and 'an off- duty housewife' was her husband. The Guardian's James Hall describes her work as kitsch and cosmetic.

William Packer, critic for the Financial Times, explains why: the 'true painter' is always engrossed in the act of painting 'as the pigment comes off the brush on to the canvas'. O'Keeffe's texture is subdued and self-effacing. As my sister, an art teacher, explained when she took teenagers to the Hayward: 'People expect the canvas to be grand, to see the texture of paint, so that they know they are in the presence of an artist in the act of creation. She doesn't do that. But she changes the way you see things, that is what is important to her.'

The critics exemplify a painterly ideology that denies O'Keeffe her craft. Jackson Pollock, not O'Keeffe, came to be acclaimed as America's first great master. John Berger, the art critic, suggests his 'art is no longer mediation, but act'. O'Keeffe, in contrast, is interested only in the image. And that is mobilised by the critics as accusation, not explanation.

Greatness, it seems, now lies in heroic enactment. The era of reproduction - one of the triumphs of modernity - unsettles the status of the genius. The democracy of popular culture is seen as an affront to the unique, the irreplaceable.

'These paintings improve in reproduction,' spits William Feaver, meaning biscuit tins and bric-a-brac. 'Tremendous in reproduction,' says Andrew Graham-Dixon. But don't get excited, he likens her to a 'commercial illustrator'.

So she's dead common. That supports a tendency to ignore what the academic Helen McNeil designates the 'prophetic minimalism' of the later paintings of her New Mexico house. Her mighty flower paintings of the Twenties, saturated in the Freudian readings that flooded the American intelligentsia, brought a new vocabulary to modern art. Their self-contained vulval vigour, their fragile, calm, busy beauty is why so many women love her. Is that why these men are so vicious?

In their reading of O'Keeffe's iconic sensuality, the critics complain that the flowers are celebratory metaphors for women's sexuality. Then their fetishes pounce. Thus does William Feaver filter her flowers through fantasies of 'yearning gladioli rent asunder'.

Neither O'Keeffe nor her paintings yield. Even in her ambivalent agreement to be displayed herself - not in her own art, but in her husband's - she is in an unsteady dialogue with modernism. In his pictures we see her steady gaze, handsome armpit, the lithe clarity of edges and curves. We bring our own desire to what we see. But why did she let us look?

These are inquiries that belong to O'Keeffe's argument with her era. But, the critics retort, Stieglitz's nude photographs, not her painting, made her into a star. He is what they admire about her.

They womanise O'Keeffe, and they strip her of any place as a pioneer. Obsessed with what they see as vulval vulgarity and 'ranting feminists', these critics come to us not with wisdom but a gender grudge.