GEORGIA O'KEEFFE NOVEMBER 15, 2013
In Miss Georgia O'Keeffe America seems definitely to have produced a woman painter comparable to her best woman poets and novelists. Her new paintings in the Stieglitz exhibition at the Anderson Galleries are astonishing even to those who were astonished by her first exhibition two years ago; and they seem to represent a more considerable growth in her art for the period of the past year than the exhibition of last spring did for that of the year before. For one thing, she has gone in for larger canvasses; she has passed from the close-rolled white lilies of her last phase to enormous yellow lilies and wide-open purple petunias. Yet at the same time that she has allowed her art to expand in this decorative gorgeousness, she has lost nothing in intensity—that peculiarly feminine intensity which has galvanized all her work and which seems to manifest itself, as a rule, in such a different way from the masculine. Men, as a rule, in communicating their intensity, seem not only to incorporate it in the representation of external objects but almost, in the work of art, to produce something which is itself an external object and, as it were, detachable from themselves; whereas women seem to charge the objects they represent with so immediate a personal emotion that they absorb the subject into themselves instead of incorporating themselves into the subject. Where men's minds may have a freer range and their works of art be thrown out further from themselves, women artists have a way of appearing to wear their most brilliant productions—however objective in form—like those other artistic expressions, their clothes. So the razor-like scroll edges of Miss O'Keeffe's magnified autumn leaves make themselves felt directly as the sharpness of a personality; and the dark green stalks of one of her "Corn" pictures have become so charged by her personal current and fused by her personal heat that they have the aspect of some sort of dynamo of feeling constructed not to represent but to generate, down the center of which the fierce white line strikes like an electric spark. This last picture, in its solidity and life, seems to me one of her most successful.
One finds also among these new paintings remarkable effects of fluidity and vagueness; her white birches are mistier than last year and she has discovered a new subject in the shifting of water over the pebbly bottom of a lake. In other pictures, she combines the blurred and the sharp to produce violent dissonances; and this insistence on dissonance is one of the most striking features of the exhibition. Miss O'Keeffe seems bent on bringing together things which cannot possibly live in the same picture—not only vagueness and sharpness, but mutually repellent colors. In some pictures, which seem less successful, this gives the impression of a fault of taste. Thus, we see a red leaf painted on a green background in such a way as to give a harmony in bronze, but on the green leaf a neutral brownish leaf which jars with the other colors and seems irreconcilable with them. Again, in one of her most elaborate pictures, Red to Black, there appears above a rich foundation of flesh-like folds occupying half the canvas and in her vividest vein of red, a stratum of black, not intense, as the eye expects after the intense red, but discomfitingly washy and dim, and above this a light superstructure of sketchily outlined hills whose pinks and lavenders seem quite out of key with the deep reds and purples below; the whole effect is of an inartistically feathered and overweighted shuttle-cock dragged too heavily to earth. But in other pictures it seems plain that these anomalies are deliberate and significant and we recognize them as analogous to the dissonances of modern poetry and music. A sunken tree-trunk is seen in the water, a blurred brown under turbid green—but there floats above it a single leaf of blue-silver as livid and bright as the mercury tubes in photographers' windows and so distinctly outlined that is almost seems impossible for the eye to see both leaf and log with the same focus. Again, from a preliminary study of a plain white house with a dark open doorway, set in the greenery and lilac-bushes of spring, she develops an abstract picture (The Flag Pole) in which the actual outlines of the house have melted away into the exquisite mist of lavender and green but the rectangle of the doorway has intensified itself to black opacity and geometrical exactness in such sharp relief that it seems actually to have been projected out from the plane of the picture and to hang in the air before it. One becomes fascinated by these discords at the same time that one is shocked by them: one stares long trying to eliminate or soften the repulsion between these opposites—the harsh rectangle and the aura of springtime, the dim lake and the incandescent leaf.
Georgia O’Keeffe outblazes the other painters in the exhibition—Marin, Hartley, Dove and Demuth—but it is impossible to compare her with them—even in those pictures which are closest to hers: the white-silver and black storm-clouds of Dove. If the art of women and the art of men have, as I have suggested, fundamental differences, they sometimes seem incommensurable. The water-colors of Mr. Marin are masculine masterpieces: they are the investiture of nature with the distinction of a distinguished temperament: some of the Maine seascapes, with their greens and blues and white sails, with their incomparable combination of dryness and freshness, are among the finest Marins I have seen. Mr. Marsden Hartley appears with his characteristic repertoire of plain fishes and bottles and plates, which he embrowns or dully empurples with his characteristic sullen felicity.
Mr. Stieglitz, who celebrates with this exhibition the twentieth anniversary of the opening of 291 Fifth Avenue, the small gallery with which the development of most of the painters here shown has been so intimately associated, exhibits new examples of his amazing genius for forcing the camera to become an instrument of the artist's sensibility—a genius of a sort so unusual that between the productions of Mr. Stieglitz and the photographs of the ablest of his rivals there seems to lie a difference not merely of degree but almost of kind. Mr. Stieglitz, in pushing his mastery of the camera further from mechanical reproduction and closer and closer to the freedom of plastic art, has lately deserted the earth altogether and taken to the clouds, where be seems to have found a material of maximum variability. The shapes and textures of the sky are infinitely irregular and strange, and they are never twice the same—so that the artist can have practically anything he likes. Furthermore, the person who looks at the picture is never distracted from the artist's intention by recognizing familiar objects, familiar subjects of photographs. One finds effects of a feathery softness or of a marmoreal solidity, which, nonetheless, do not remind one in the least of either feathers or marble. Some of Mr. Stieglitz's recent experiments in this field are, I suppose, among his greatest triumphs. Especially impressive among these newest photographs are certain masses of striking somberness and grandeur, which lift themselves as if in grief.