ART / A legend in her own landscape: Andrew Graham-Dixon argues that, despite the great American myth, Georgia O'Keeffe is nothing but a little painter lost in a vast wilderness

Andrew Graham-Dixon
Tuesday 13 April 1993 00:02

THE FIRST British retrospective of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings, which opened at the Hayward Gallery last week, resoundingly confirms her genius, although not perhaps in the way that she herself might have wished. This exhibition reveals that O'Keeffe must have had an amazing gift for self-publicisation; an immense talent for convincing others of her talent; an absolute mastery of the art of persuasion. Because it also reveals that the most famous female American artist of the 20th century was, quite simply, not very good.

O'Keeffe emerges from this show as a mediocrity who managed to turn herself, partly through force of will, partly through sheer luck, into an icon of modern American culture. She was mediocre in the right way, and at the right time, to be taken far more seriously than her art warranted. But it is just possible that O'Keeffe may finally, a decade after her death at the ripe age of 99, have run out of luck. And it may be that the forces which have been so largely responsible for promoting her to a much higher place in modern art's pantheon than she deserves - those forces being, primarily, a certain kind of American jingoism and a certain kind of misguidedly defensive feminism - can no longer shield her work from plain, honest scrutiny of its defects. Critics, curators, artists and the rest of the art world's opinion-makers have been having their doubts about O'Keeffe for some time now, but those doubts have mostly been expressed quietly, privately, like irreverent remarks whispered in church. It is about time they were spoken out loud.

For the benefit of those who may be unfamiliar with it, the traditional, much-parroted argument for O'Keeffe as A Major American Modern Artist may be worth repeating one more time. It goes more or less like this:

'Georgia O'Keeffe's sublime, light-filled pictures of the New Mexican landscape, of bleached bones lying in the desert sand, of fantastically magnified poppies and calla lilies and irises, establish her as the great early modern torchbearer of a proudly American school of painting. O'Keeffe was the true inheritor of that American transcendentalist impulse, inspired by the vastness of the American landscape, which first expressed itself in the writings of Emerson and Thoreau and in the panoramic visions of wilderness painted by Albert Bierstadt and Frederick Church in the 19th century. Such writers and painters found, in the uncultivated scenery and daunting scale of American landscape, in the spreading vastness of the Grand Canyon or the intimidating grandeur of the Niagara Falls, earthly symbols of divine power. They saw America as a paradise unspoiled, an immense idyll, a place where all things, from the largest to the smallest, provided matter for contemplation: in the book of American nature, they believed, God's great plan could still be deciphered.

'O'Keeffe's paintings, too, are possessed of a pantheistic sense of the American land, of vast forces at work both in the most sublime manifestations of nature and in its humblest forms. Turning her back on urban existence, she renounced her life in New York and, following the sources of her inspiration, moved to a remote ranch in New Mexico. There she saw and painted the splendour of the sky, conveyed the elemental power of clouds forming and dissolving above the vastness of that desert land; and she saw the same power and significance in the leaves and blooms of the plants that she painted, which she remade as splendid images of the regenerative power of nature itself. 'I have used these things,' she said, 'to say what is to me the wideness and the wonder of the world as I live in it.' O'Keeffe was not only a great artist in her own right, and a beacon of hope for all women American artists struggling for recognition, but her art is also a glorious chapter in a narrative that begins in the 19th century and culminates in the 1950s with the grand transcendental abstractions of the New York School: she predicted the art of Rothko, Newman and Pollock.'

That, at least, is something like the official American art market and American art institutional and American feminist version of The Importance Of Georgia O'Keeffe. It was devised largely by O'Keeffe herself (and perhaps not cynically: she may well have believed her own publicity) and it has proved remarkably enduring. In 1946, the New York Times's art critic Edward Alden Jewell announced that 'Georgia O'Keeffe is in the ultimate sense a mystic . . . She paints a flower, a shell, a leaf, a tree, the dessicated skull of an animal, portraying these objects as microcosms; and it will always be the macrocosm - the enveloping sum of elements peculiar to life and death - that presses in, giving the concept its final radiance.' And in the latest, revised edition of Robert Hughes's The Shock of the New, it is stated that 'the outstanding exponent of American transcendentalism in earlier 20th- century art was Georgia O'Keeffe, whose swooping forms of petal and stamen fill the entire surface of the canvas, have the amplitude of landscape itself'.

This view of O'Keeffe can, it has to be said, seem terribly convincing, especially when it is advanced in books or newspapers or on television. O'Keeffe's art looks tremendous in reproduction: radiant and inspiring and charged with just that mystical sense of the world claimed for it by its apologists, a thoroughly convincing contribution to that American transcendentalist tradition in which it has so often been placed. By contrast, those dissenting from the official view of O'Keeffe will have to rest their case on a less easily communicable, less easily shared experience: the experience, simply, of looking at her paintings, the things themselves, hung on a gallery wall.

To see O'Keeffe's paintings after having known them only in reproduction is an immensely disappointing experience. Their surfaces are flat and inert, O'Keeffe's drawing dull and mechanical, her painting technique reminiscent of the airbrush artist's smooth and unruffled filling-in of space. They suggest that the Georgia O'Keeffe of her own legend, the modern primitive, the inspired painter of the natural world, may be little more than a myth. There was, after all, another Georgia O'Keeffe, who is (funnily enough) little mentioned in the hagiography that has largely passed for criticism of her work: the Georgia O'Keeffe who briefly abandoned painting in 1909 to pursue a career as a commercial artist in Chicago, designing among other things a particularly successful commercial logo for a company called Little Dutch Girl. The other O'Keeffe was a painter with the limited talents of a commercial artist but the ambition to be remembered as a Rembrandt.

O'Keeffe's paintings have the workaday dedication to minutiae of the commercial illustrator and they have the character, themselves, of competent illustrations. What they demonstrate, perhaps above all, is their creator's almost complete misunderstanding of pictorial scale.

Seen in reproduction, you might imagine that these pictures were immense. They should be, but they are not. Devised to stun the viewer with the grandeur and force of nature, they are painted to a scale that completely sabotages that ambition: in reproduction, they look like images to get lost in, to baffle the senses, but in reality they are just mid-sized canvases hanging on a wall, looking like fragments of cut-out wallpaper.

Bierstadt and Church (and Rothko and Pollock and, for that matter, James Turrell, the American light artist whose work, also on show at the Hayward currently, considerably outshines that of O'Keeffe) understood that to communicate the transcendentalist view of things requires the artist to create images too large to be taken in at a glance: images that envelop the viewer, that spread beyond the viewer's field of vision in order to conjure something of the vastness that is the artist's subject. But had O'Keeffe painted any larger than she did (perhaps she knew this), the infelicities of her technique would have become even more conspicuous, the pedestrian nature of her drawing and painting magnified to the point where they would even have been apparent in reproduction. In fact, she might have been better advised to paint very small indeed, to attempt the clotted radiance of an artist such as Samuel Palmer - but she did not, except in some early watercolours which may, not coincidentally, be the best work in this exhibition.

This is not entirely to impeach O'Keeffe's credentials as a modern inheritor of 19th-century transcendentalist attitudes - but it is to ask why she, in particular, should have been singled out as its great exponent in early 20th- century culture. The fact is that Georgia O'Keeffe's art was not unique, but entirely of its time. The first half of the 20th century saw the creation of thousands of images that propose exactly the same sort of vaguely pantheistic, heaven-in-a-grain-of-sand view of the world as the pictures of O'Keeffe. Most of those images, however, were created by photographers, and it may be that O'Keeffe's true historical place lies in that modern photographic tradition that goes back to Edward Weston's close-focus pictures of roses and extends forward to Andreas Feininger's equally close-focus pictures of sea-shells and other natural forms: images of the macrocosm in the microcosm no less eloquent (and possibly more, although it might seem like sacrilege to say so) than O'Keeffe's own pictures.

The lesson of this show, if it has one, is that paintings can be venerated out of all proportion to their true quality for only so long - and that, in the end, an artist's mythology and the mythology that has built up around their work will have to stand the test of real looking, real encounter with the objects that they produced. The only thing that counts, ultimately, is the articulacy, the radiance (or otherwise) of the art itself.

(Photographs omitted)

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