New Exhibit Seeks To Shake O'Keeffe's Labia-Centric Label

"Kitschy," "a tourist-brochure artist," "labia-centric" and "baby-crazy" are just some of the insults that have been thrown at artist Georgia O'Keeffe. But a new exhibit at the Whitney seeks to change all that.

The public perception of O'Keeffe's work has long been polarized. Many people love O'Keeffe for her sensual flowers, her deserts awash with color and light, but many others see her paintings as analogous with easy listening music—something only those with no taste for the edgier stuff can enjoy. Critics have not been kind to O'Keeffe, which has furthered the assumption that anyone who knows anything about art must know better than to enjoy her work (It probably does not help that Lifetime is producing a biopic about O'Keeffe's personal life). According to Roxana Robinson, author of a 1989 biography of O'Keeffe, this institutional snobbery has been going on since she first broke onto the art scene. The Observer reports,

"The critics liked to dismiss her as a woman, and anything she did as soft and emotional," Ms. Robinson said. "One of the critics early on said, ‘This is just a woman who wants to have a baby.' There was always a group of voices that were outraged by her work. And they took different positions to ridicule and minimize it."

It certainly did not help that Alfred Stieglitz, O'Keeffe's future husband and founder 291, one of the most influential art galleries in 20th century America, included in one of his exhibitions a series of nude photographs he had taken of O'Keeffe. It did not take long for critics to being to view O'Keeffe's art as an extension of her body. She was seen as all sex, all the time, and she hated it.

"Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction" opens today at the Whitney. Barbara Haskell, leader of the curatorial team responsible for the exhibit, says that she hopes by showing some of O'Keeffe's lesser known abstract pieces, she will help change the public perception of the artist:

"We want to argue that Georgia O'Keeffe created a body of fantastically radical abstract work, and that she was at the forefront of the most vanguard concepts of what it meant to make a painting," Ms. Haskell said. "There's a paradox, in that she is so beloved by the public and yet in some ways is not taken as seriously by the so-called art connoisseurs. She needed a fresh look. One of the handlers here said he'd always taken her for granted and had never thought of her as a serious painter. Now he's totally convinced."

Instead of showing the ever-popular flowers and landscapes, Haskell has selected paintings from O'Keeffe's earlier years, when she was still working with a good deal of abstraction. As gallery director Reagan Upshaw points out, "in the teens and twenties, she was as far out as anybody. When she was doing those abstract things, there was no one in America more avant-garde than she was." Several of the works on display have the same sort of vague geometric intensity as a Rothko painting, while others zero in on the curves and twists of the natural world. Many of these paintings will feel familiar to those acquainted with O'Keeffe's flowers and bones, but if you have only ever seen O'Keeffe's most popular paintings, it will be difficult to recognize the abstract waves of color. Some of O'Keeffe's later work will also be included in the exhibit (including images from her 1960s series "Sky Above The Clouds," shown above), as will—naturally—several of Stieglitz's famous portraits. The show will run for four months before moving to the Phillips Collection in Washington and later to the O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

Love It Or Hate It, O'Keeffe's At The Whitney [New York Observer]
Georgia On Our Mind [NY Post]
Painting A New Picture Of Georgia O'Keeffe [Wall Street Journal]
Georgia O'Keeffe: Abstraction [Whitney Museum]
Joan Allen Plays Georgia O'Keeffe In A Film About Romance And Staunch Independence [Canadian Press]

Image via WSJ