Saturday, October 03, 2009

O'Keeffe's Abstractions and Wolfe's Trompe l'oeil

With JS I saw the show "Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction" at the Whitney last night. Known for her representational art (flowers, landscapes), O'Keeffe began in the 1920's as an abstract painter, and abstract painting continued to inform her dominant mode. The early charcoal drawings, which Alfred Stieglitz saw and showed at his NY gallery, were striking. In shades of gray that resemble early photography, they already showed a love for the spiral, as in the scroll of a violin, or the shiver of desert air as a train disappears into the night.

From gray she moved on to the mastery of blue. "Blue II" is a powerful spiraling in, that could be a hand or a fetus or something else. The surging organic spiral stands in sharp contrast with the sharp, flat, analytical abstractions practiced by contemporaneous European Cubism. I like her one or two-color paintings much better than the later multiple-hued pastel-like palette. A colleague described the latter aptly as Kleenex.

The large vagina-like flowers associated so strongly with O'Keeffe I found boring. Much more compelling were her studies of white and yellow sweet pea. In those two paintings, the flowers are flowers, with their intricate and sensual layers and folds. Most painters paint flowers from a distance (you see them in a vase, for instance), but O'Keeffe plunges the viewer into them. This close-crop technique she credited Stieglitz's nude photographs of her. The show also displayed those close-ups of her hands, her breasts, her bottom.

I also saw "Steve Wolfe on Paper," an interesting repudiation of Andy Warhol's silkscreen paintings. Whitney website: "Working in the tradition of trompe l’oeil, his pieces often quite literally fool the eye on first inspection: tattered books, worn album covers, and vinyl records appear pristine but these are objects made from modeling paste, screenprints, drawings, and many other media, and they reproduce not just the thing but the individuality an object takes on as it is consumed by one or more individuals. Wolfe's objects are, in real life, ones that must be used and physically manipulated in some detailed way—books have every page turned, records every groove worn. The patina of time is thus inevitable and necessary, and leaves a record of the object’s meaning as it passes from the user's hand to mind."

The books included Gertrude Stein's short stories and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Jack Kerouac's On the Road, Susan Sontag's Against Interpretation, George Bataille's Literature and Evil. They looked like well-used, well-loved objects.


Keith said...

Apparently, she hated the sexual interpretation of her flowers and she blamed Stieglitz for encouraging it. The close ups were partly inspired by the work of Edward Weston (a favorite) and other early abstract art photographers that were friends with Stieglitz. I also liked her work more than I thought I would. I visited the museum dedicated to her work in the southwest, and found it well worth a visit. The pencil and charcoal work was as compelling (or more) as the oil.

Jee Leong Koh said...

The show quoted her hatred for sexual interpretation. Looking at those flowers, however, I could not get vagina out of my head, much as I wanted to. Perhaps she did not want her paintings to mean only one thing. I have not been to the museum, but after seeing the show would visit it if I am in the area. Thanks for your comment, Keith.