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Georgia O’Keeffe, Centre Pompidou, September 8—December 6, 2021

Curated by Didier Ottinger
Carolin Görgen

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The author wishes to thank Didier Ottinger as well as Marion Jousseaume, Matthew J. Holman, and the students of the 2021 “American Art: Center and Margin” class at Sorbonne Université (UFR Etudes Anglophones).

Accompanying catalog: OTTINGER, Didier, ed. Georgia O’Keeffe. Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2021. 271 pages, illustrations, chiefly color, ISBN: 978-2844269003.

  • 1 Carolin Görgen is Associate Professor of American Studies at Sorbonne Université, Paris. Her disser (...)

1How come the perhaps most renowned American Modernist Georgia O’Keeffe, represented in every major museum collection across the U.S., is still virtually unknown to the French public?1 Last fall, the Centre Pompidou in Paris presented the first retrospective of the pioneering American painter, best known for her sumptuous flowers and Southwestern landscapes. Curated by Didier Ottinger and accompanied by a superbly illustrated catalog, the exhibition traces O’Keeffe’s life, which spans almost a century (1887–1986)—from her début in vibrant early twentieth-century Manhattan, to her travels between Texas plains and upstate New York, all the way to New Mexico’s remote mesas, where she would spend the second half of her career. The show, a good ten years in the making and the fruit of a great deal of convincing Ottinger’s fellow museum professionals, does not necessarily address the question of O’Keeffe’s belated recognition in France. Yet the more than one hundred works on display, mostly on canvas and paper, cast aside any question about her preeminent position in the Modernist vanguard. The throngs of visitors pouring into the museum over the course of three months confirmed Ottinger’s bet that O’Keeffe—sometimes “desert sage,” sometimes frontierswoman “à la Calamity Jane”—would captivate Parisian and European audiences as much as she continues to attract crowds across the Atlantic.

2Upon entering the galleries, visitors are introduced to this very notoriety in a series of photographs, projected in large format across from the first exhibition room.

Figure 1: John Loengard (American 1934-2020), Holding a Book by Leonard Baskin, Abiquiú, 1966.

Figure 1: John Loengard (American 1934-2020), Holding a Book by Leonard Baskin, Abiquiú, 1966.

Gelatin silver print. 37.9 x 28.09 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.

Figure 2: John Loengard (American 1934-2020), Evening Walk, Ghost Ranch, 1966.

Figure 2: John Loengard (American 1934-2020), Evening Walk, Ghost Ranch, 1966.

Gelatin silver print, 21.27 x 33.02 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.

3Mesmerizing portraits of an aging O’Keeffe, as captured by John Loengard in and around her home at Ghost Ranch (Fig. 1, Fig. 2), make it clear that her oeuvre is inseparable from her audacious lifestyle, and that she indeed embodies, as recently suggested, the “living modern” (Corn). Although O’Keeffe’s legacy may seem inextricably connected to Alfred Stieglitz, her husband and patron saint of American photography, it is not the soft tones of his early portraits (Fig. 3) that stick with the viewer.

Figure 3: Alfred Stieglitz (American 1864-1946), Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918.

Figure 3: Alfred Stieglitz (American 1864-1946), Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918.

Gelatin silver print, 8.89 x 11.43 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe.

  • 2 On view at the Museum of Grenoble, France, November 7, 2015–February 7, 2016, see Sophie Bernard an (...)

4Rather, the parade of twentieth-century American photographers that follows (Ansel Adams, Philippe Halsmann, Tod Webb, and Laura Gilpin, to mention only a few) depict a resolutely solitary Georgia within her Southwestern cosmos—a place that Stieglitz would never set eyes on. Perhaps in a nod to the only French exhibit devoted to O’Keeffe prior to the Pompidou—the 2015 Georgia O’Keeffe and her photographer friends exhibit at the Museum of Grenoble2—the photographic introduction at Beaubourg places her squarely within a long twentieth century of American modernism.

5While the exhibition follows a chronological course, much of its appeal comes from the open design that allows visitors to navigate the space as they please. We crisscross the continent from East to West, from high-rises to prairies, and trace how abstraction and decoration, Kandinsky-inspired visual symphonies and extravagant desert flowers, are interwoven. Rather than a linear progression, the exhibition design emphasizes the various directions into which O’Keeffe’s body of work was pulled over the course of her career.

6At the beginning of this career stands Stieglitz’s Gallery 291 in New York City: it represents not just the Modernist mecca to which a twenty-something Midwestern art student would naturally be drawn, but also the starting point of her three-decade long relationship with Stieglitz as her lover, mentor, and patron. On view in the first room is the spare watercolor composition Black Lines (Fig. 4), made in 1916, the year of their first encounter.

Figure 4: Georgia O’Keeffe (American 1887-1986), Black Lines, 1916.

Figure 4: Georgia O’Keeffe (American 1887-1986), Black Lines, 1916.

Watercolor on paper, 62.2 x 46.9 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of the Burnett Foundation.

7Exploring these sketches alongside the well-known cast of 291, including Marsden Hartley, Pablo Picasso, and Auguste Rodin, visitors can’t help but sympathize with Stieglitz’s initial reaction: “Finally! A Woman on Paper!” (Hiddleston-Galloni 245). While the 291 section seems to be a mandatory rite of passage in any review of O’Keeffe’s life, at the Centre Pompidou, the early sketches are drawn into conversation with later work. As viewers need to stand in the first room to properly view the aforementioned projection of photographs, works of the 1910s mingle with O’Keeffe’s portraits gazing back, at us and at her own work, half a century down the road. Although this makes for a rather packed set-up in the first gallery (the crowds keep coming), visitors are quickly released into the open space that follows.

8The lasting impact of 291 manifests itself in this space, where we first encounter her variations on Wassily Kandinsky’s On the Spiritual in Art (1911), translated as early as 1912 by Stieglitz. Grasping the links between painting and music, and increasingly aware “that music could be translated into something for the eye,” O’Keeffe embarked on her early floral compositions in the late 1910s (“Blue and Green Music”). In the same period, while on a teaching assignment in the Texas panhandle, she explored the Russian Abstractionist’s “vibrations of the soul” (Ottinger 86), notably in the Evening Star series (Fig. 5). In the exhibition, the modest aquarelle No. VI from the series stands through its pulsating colors—crimson reds curled around a faint golden Venus that rises above deep blue Southern plains.

Figure 5: Georgia O’Keeffe (American 1887-1986), Evening Star No. VI, 1917.

Figure 5: Georgia O’Keeffe (American 1887-1986), Evening Star No. VI, 1917.

Watercolor on paper, 22.5 x 30.4 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of the Burnett Foundation.

9Across the room, the prolific period of the 1910s spills over into the 1920s, most of which were spent in New York, either in Manhattan or upstate at the Stieglitz family home at Lake George. Large and astonishing oil canvasses of New York streets at dusk echo the prairie colors of the previous decade, with rhythmic swirling clouds lurking from behind the Shelton Hotel. O’Keeffe’s close dialogue with her artist-friends shines through in these works. This circle does not just include Stieglitz’s photographer fraternity of Edward Steichen and Paul Strand, equally enthralled by the city’s fast-changing architecture, but also Charles Sheeler, whose Precisionist aesthetics inspired some of her own views, of factories on the East River and rural dwellings upstate. A series of Northeastern landscapes tucked away in a side aisle reveals, however, the limits of this influence. O’Keeffe’s autumnal scenes in subdued pink and blue depict an almost pastoral stillness by the lake—a “little scenery,” as she put it. Visitors who have just had a taste of her push toward the great wide open would agree with O’Keeffe’s own observation, in a letter to her friend Anita Pollitzer in 1925, that the East Coast setting is “very pretty, but not for me.”

10What was very much for her in the following two decades is on display in the exhibition’s main space where flora and desert mingle. Her flowers, although perhaps belittled at the time for their decorative character, are magnified and sublimated with petals the size of faces, as in the Black Iris series (Fig. 6 and Fig. 7).

Figure 7: Georgia O’Keeffe (American 1887-1986), The Black Iris, 1926.

Figure 7: Georgia O’Keeffe (American 1887-1986), The Black Iris, 1926.

Oil on canvas, 22.8 x 17.7 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of The Burnett Foundation.

  • 3 “Georgia O’Keeffe,” on view at Tate Modern, London, July 6–October 30, 2016.

11Taking her cue from the immensity of Manhattan skyscrapers, O’Keeffe opted for large formats to execute her flower paintings, thus exploding the insides of irises, lilies, jonquils, and poppies across the canvas. These are gathered together as the heart-piece of the show, where we are immersed in shades of yellow, lilac, and mint, and drawn toward their intricate shapes. While the critics’ response to the flowers as representations of female sex organs initially amused O’Keeffe, she soon considered the category reductive. Drawing on extensive correspondence, Ottinger identifies the flower/vulva equivalency as “a fatal shortcut,” asserting that O’Keeffe’s play with female features was merely “a means for a wider artistic ambition” (Ottinger 22). Casting the flowers as symbols of early women empowerment and herself as a painter of the erotic feminine would diminish her output, as a recent exhibition at Tate Modern likewise argued.3 While O’Keeffe embraced feminist causes—joining the National Women’s Party in 1913 and cultivating a lifelong friendship with suffragist Anita Pollitzer—she rejected the all too frequent classification of her work as purely “feminine” or “Freudian.” The flowers she would paint until the 1950s, many of them native to the American Southwest, elude definite labeling and instead reveal a broader “biocentric” desire to “[credit] non-human life with something more than passive objecthood,” as suggested by Alan Braddock (Braddock and Kusserow 328).

12The Southwestern works on view in the remainder of the exhibition, including landscapes, skulls and aerial views, converse with her regional flower taste. Largely centered around New Mexico, these sections trace O’Keeffe’s regular jaunts to Taos, starting in 1929, as well as her later oeuvre once she settled in Abiquiú in the late 1940s. Here, the painter mingles desert flora with skulls, bones, and shells from her Southwestern treasure box. In Pelvis with the Distance of 1943 (Fig. 8), immense cream-colored pelvis bones gracefully float in azure skies above the desolate plains.

13In the pelvis series, some canvasses have an almost surrealist flair. This echo is not surprising, given O’Keeffe’s exchanges with her contemporaries throughout the 1930s, notably Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Southwestern artist circle. Her simple clay-colored renderings of Ranchos Church at Taos further mirror the photographs of Ansel Adams and Paul Strand, who regularly made the trip to the Pueblo region.

14In 1946, the year Stieglitz dies, O’Keeffe’s work is on view at the Museum of Modern Art—the institution’s first retrospective devoted to a woman artist. Three years later, she leaves the East Coast behind and makes New Mexico her permanent home. As the period marks a return to her spiritual readings and frequent flights across the desert, the exhibition’s last section shows canvasses of flat sand surfaces, traversed by rose-colored arteries. If these are somewhat reminiscent of her early flower dissections, by mid-century, the undulating shapes are reduced to a minimum. Despite the remoteness of Abiquiú, O’Keeffe yet again puts her finger on the pulse of American art, notably in My Last Door (Fig. 9).

Figure 9: Georgia O’Keeffe (American 1887-1986), My Last Door, 1952-1954.

Figure 9: Georgia O’Keeffe (American 1887-1986), My Last Door, 1952-1954.

Oil on canvas, 122.5 x 213.8 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of The Burnett Foundation.

15Here, rhythmic rectangles and saturated black shapes echo both Ellsworth Kelly’s and Barnett Newman’s abstractions at mid-century. The canvasses in the last part of the exhibition, less densely hung and more streamlined toward abstraction, have a solemn touch to them. This feeling is emphasized by the video installation before the exit which follows her around Ghost Ranch in later years as her vision became increasingly impaired. In rare glimpses of her studio (Fig. 10) and interviews, it illustrates how O’Keeffe, ever the vanguardist, painted without assistance until her late eighties and would continue drawing until shortly before her death in 1986.

Figure 10: Laura Gilpin, Studio of Georgia O’Keeffe Overlooking Chama Valley, 1960.

Figure 10: Laura Gilpin, Studio of Georgia O’Keeffe Overlooking Chama Valley, 1960.

Gelatin silver print, 19.36 x 24.44 cm. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the Artist.

16If the exhibition draws the curtain, for the first time in France, to the life and work of Georgia O’Keeffe, both the grand gestures and meticulous detail of its design make for a powerful—and yes, empowering—display. Tracing the century-long output of an artist who has remained under the radar of scholarly and public appreciation on this side of the Atlantic is a considerable feat. While carefully avoiding all too predictable labels for such a vast body of work (“feminine,” “abstraction,” “flower painting”), the exhibition drives home O’Keeffe’s rootedness in the American soil, mirroring her disregard of those who declared themselves American artists “without ever crossing the Hudson.” In this regard, a broader contextualization of O’Keeffe’s Southwestern period, and especially her dialogue with Hopi culture and traditions, would perhaps have offered deeper insight to the public. At the same time, for an Americanist audience, the “cosmology” Ottinger and his team built is nothing short of a feast across the continent where we re-encounter Transcendentalists, Realists, and Abstractionists. As the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe will undergo major construction at the end of this year, with the opening of “the new O’Keeffe” scheduled in 2024 (“New Museum”), one would hope to see more desert flowers, black mesas, and sun-bleached skulls in Paris in the upcoming years.

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Bibliographie

“Blue and Green Music, 1919/21.” Art Institute Chicago. artic.edu/artworks/24306/blue-and-green-music. Accessed 12 January 2022.

BRADDOCK, Alan C., and KUSSEROW, Karl. Nature’s Nation. American Art and Environment. New Haven: Yale University Press, distributed for the Princeton University Art Museum, 2018.

CORN, Wanda M. Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern. Brooklyn and Munich: Brooklyn Museum and DelMonico Books-Prestel, 2017.

HIDDLESTON-GALLONI, Anna. “Biographie.” Georgia O’Keeffe. Ed. Didier Ottinger. Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2021, p. 242-259.

“New Museum.” Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. okeeffemuseum.org/newmuseum/. Accessed 12 January 2022.

OTTINGER, Didier, ed. Georgia O’Keeffe. Paris: Éditions du Centre Pompidou, 2021.

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Notes

1 Carolin Görgen is Associate Professor of American Studies at Sorbonne Université, Paris. Her dissertation on the California Camera Club (Université de Paris & École du Louvre 2018) received the “Thinking Photography” award of the German Society for Photography and the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation. Most recently, she has been a fellow at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas, the Beinecke Library at Yale, and the Terra Foundation for American Art.

2 On view at the Museum of Grenoble, France, November 7, 2015–February 7, 2016, see Sophie Bernard and Camille Ducastel, eds., Georgia O’Keeffe et ses amis photographes (Paris and Grenoble: Somogy Editions d’art and Musée de Grenoble, 2015).

3 “Georgia O’Keeffe,” on view at Tate Modern, London, July 6–October 30, 2016.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1: John Loengard (American 1934-2020), Holding a Book by Leonard Baskin, Abiquiú, 1966.
Légende Gelatin silver print. 37.9 x 28.09 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/18358/img-1.png
Fichier image/png, 735k
Titre Figure 2: John Loengard (American 1934-2020), Evening Walk, Ghost Ranch, 1966.
Légende Gelatin silver print, 21.27 x 33.02 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/18358/img-2.png
Fichier image/png, 459k
Titre Figure 3: Alfred Stieglitz (American 1864-1946), Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918.
Légende Gelatin silver print, 8.89 x 11.43 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/18358/img-3.png
Fichier image/png, 1,3M
Titre Figure 4: Georgia O’Keeffe (American 1887-1986), Black Lines, 1916.
Légende Watercolor on paper, 62.2 x 46.9 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of the Burnett Foundation.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/18358/img-4.png
Fichier image/png, 177k
Titre Figure 5: Georgia O’Keeffe (American 1887-1986), Evening Star No. VI, 1917.
Légende Watercolor on paper, 22.5 x 30.4 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of the Burnett Foundation.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/18358/img-5.png
Fichier image/png, 1,1M
Titre Figure 7: Georgia O’Keeffe (American 1887-1986), The Black Iris, 1926.
Légende Oil on canvas, 22.8 x 17.7 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of The Burnett Foundation.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/18358/img-6.png
Fichier image/png, 620k
Titre Figure 9: Georgia O’Keeffe (American 1887-1986), My Last Door, 1952-1954.
Légende Oil on canvas, 122.5 x 213.8 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe. Gift of The Burnett Foundation.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/18358/img-7.png
Fichier image/png, 295k
Titre Figure 10: Laura Gilpin, Studio of Georgia O’Keeffe Overlooking Chama Valley, 1960.
Légende Gelatin silver print, 19.36 x 24.44 cm. Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas, Bequest of the Artist.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/docannexe/image/18358/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 97k
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Carolin Görgen, « Georgia O’Keeffe, Centre Pompidou, September 8—December 6, 2021 »Transatlantica [En ligne], 1 | 2022, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2022, consulté le 10 août 2022. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/transatlantica/18358 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/transatlantica.18358

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Carolin Görgen

Associate Professor of American Studies at Sorbonne Université, Paris.

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