By John Camp
On Friday morning, a friend and I walked over to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, because she’s a great fan of O’Keeffe and because I wanted to see a new exhibit on O’Keeffe’s tools and inspirations. If you like O’Keeffe, and are in Santa Fe, the show is definitely worth seeing.
As it happens, I don’t particularly care for O’Keeffe. I think she was a distinctly minor talent whose reputation has grown because of a cult that has sprung up around her, based more on her independent lifestyle than on her art. To me, her art seems inane and derivative; even her technique seems crude, and not deliberately so. A critic whose name I can’t remember once said something to the effect that O’Keeffe’s art gets better in reproduction, and the smaller the reproduction, the better; that her natural métier is the postage stamp. I agree. But maybe that’s just me.
In any case, while my friend worked slowly through the show, in thrall to O’Keeffe’s painting, I zipped through it, winding up in the last room, which was a collection of photographs of O’Keeffe.
Now I was astounded. In my opinion, it was by far the most interesting room in the show.
Everybody knows that O’Keeffe had a notable love affair, and perhaps a less notable marriage, with Alfred Stieglitz, which produced one of the more famous books of American photography. In the back room of the museum, and later, looking through the gift shop, and a few minutes after that, talking to a guy in a nearby photo gallery, I found that she had also been photographed by Ansel Adams (many times), Arnold Newman, Irving Penn, Paul Strand, Yousef Karsh, Phillippe Halsman, Todd Webb, Carl Van Vechten, Myron Wood, Laura Gilpin, and Tony Vaccaro, and by John Loengard of Life magazine, for a photo essay.
Karsh’s reputation has suffered since his death, but the huge silver print of O’Keeffe displayed in the museum is magnificent, and as far as I could see, flawless. Adams took some extremely perceptive snapshots of her, and Strand took a great off-hand portrait. Arnold Newman took one of the more iconic shots—with horns from a dead animal (left)—and the Irving Penn is one of those he took of people jammed in a corner. Few of the photos are really "casual"—there is a deliberation about the poses that speaks of a serious artistic effort on the part of both the photographer and the model.
In any case, the woman may not have been much of a painter (IMNSHO), but she was a magnificent photographers’ model from the time she was a young woman through advanced old age. She was apparently willing to spend quite a bit of time on it, and is usually carefully costumed in her iconic black dress: she worked the camera.
If she is, as I propose, the focus of an artistic cult based more on lifestyle than on her actual art, then the cult was in a great way enhanced by the fact that she willingly made herself the subject of some of the greatest photographers of the pre-war period. Is there any other model, male or female, from any period, who has been portrayed by such a collection of greats?
If you think here that I’m speaking of the elevation of a minor talent through brilliant publicity, sort of like, well...Britney Spears...perhaps I am. (I can only hope that my friend doesn’t see this post, lest I wake up some morning with a paring knife in my chest.)
A final note: The Andrew Smith Gallery of Photography is just a few steps up the street from the O’Keeffe Museum, and is well worth a visit. They have some very nice work on display, and I was much happier there than at the O’Keeffe show, truth to tell. I was going to try to make it to Photo-Eye, the bookstore, but ran out of time.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Hugh Crawford: "John, you do realize that there is a whole lot of feminist art theory that frames Georgia O'Keeffe's career, especially her late work before she started going blind. I like her earlier Precisionism/Cubist Realism NYC work a lot; it's too bad that most of her early paintings are literally falling apart. Think of her in the context of Paul Strand, Charles Sheeler, Charles Demuth, and Ralston Crawford rather than Judy Chicago and she seems a lot stronger. I think that her best-known work is far from being her strongest work. The paintings that look good as postage stamps and postcards are obviously the ones that get reproduced on postage stamps and postcards, and thus are the only ones that are famous."
Featured Comment by Jeff: "John, as Hugh rightly indicated, one must place O'Keeffe in her proper feminist context. In this light, perhaps you fall among the other men O'Keeffe wrote about. From my copy of her 1976 book, Georgia O'Keeffe, she writes about her painting, 'The Shanty' (subsequently called 'My Shanty'...
'...the clean, clear colors were in my head, but one day as I looked at the brown burned wood of the Shanty, I thought, "I can paint one of those dismal-colored paintings like the men. I think just for fun I will try—all low toned and dreary with the tree beside the door." In my next show "The Shanty" went up. The men seemed to approve of it. They seemed to think that maybe I was beginning to paint. I don't remember what the critics said about it, but when Duncan Phillips saw it he bought it for the Phillips Collection. That was my only low-toned dismal-colored painting.' You need to let loose your feminine side."
Featured Comment by latent_image: "I think the Karsh portrait of O'Keeffe is a knockout. Bear in mind this was not done in the comfortable environs of his studio. The guy had chops."