Georgia O’Keeffe at the AGO

After walking through the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at the AGO today, I can’t help thinking about the way people are stereotyped, misunderstood, misread.

Louis Riel was very much on my mind after two intense nights, one in the company of Peter Hinton in conversation, the following night in the presence of his Canadian Opera Company production. I am a bit obsessed with ways of hearing and paraphrasing right now. Yes that’s partly the way interpretation must happen, in the reading and signification of the artists picking up an opera for production. But it’s also key to the reception process, to the way we sit and may or may not really hear or see what they’re doing, possibly receptive, possibly deaf to what it really means or what they meant to say. I was struck for example by how differently Jani Lauzon’s opening song about Riel felt, a song about Riel sitting in his stolen chair with his stolen knives. In the original it felt very cold to me, right on the edge between painting a picture of his oppression and still calling him out as a villainous criminal. When Lauzon sings? It’s loving and kind and compassionate, a totally new way to start the opera and a huge breath of fresh air, not just because she’s a woman or an Aboriginal Artist, but because she encourages us to re-hear.  A fresh start is a wonderful objective, and a good thing for any artist, any curator, and any visitor to a gallery.

That’s all preamble to my thoughts encountering Georgia O’Keeffe today at the AGO. When you go into a gallery you see it all the time, the breathless respect some people have, or the lack others have, the assumptions flying around and smacking you in the face like the saliva coming out of a lisping lecturer. Respect can be a good thing, but not if they leave you stuck in a set of hypotheses, turning the fluid life of the artist into something more rigid, even monolithic. We’ve all heard them, the way people will speak of an artist or a composer or an actor, not really looking in the here and now of what they see before them because they’re so busy forcing their perceptions into a template, trying to reconcile what they see with what they’ve been told.

I do not believe O’Keeffe has been well-served by the conversation surrounding her work. I am thinking especially of the tendency by some to eroticize her images, perhaps a projection begun by the viewers of her youthful naked photos, who had been titillated and perhaps even scandalized. For the generation accustomed to women as models and subjects of paintings rather than as the creators and interpreters, it’s likely nothing more profound than sexism, and please excuse me if that’s simplistic. But I am so in awe of this woman and her work, sad that sexist reception of her nude pictures or of her person in a gallery could poison the way her work was understood. But I’ve become much more cynical in the past year, for example as I watch the current POTUS spend more tax $ in 100 days on family vacations, than the previous President spent in years of family travel. And because the previous one was black, there’s no objectivity about it, and a double standard. Just as there appear to be multiple separate conversations, where the GOP are in their silo, the Democrats in theirs, and never the twain shall meet, perhaps too with the reception of some artists. This AGO show is a chance to see O’Keeffe afresh, unhindered by the poison you may have absorbed previously. I am embarrassed at how much it messed me up, just as I am disgusted at how badly I mis-read Riel before the refreshing revisionist interpretation I saw last night.

No I’m not saying that the AGO show is radical or political. Hm, maybe it is. But I breezed in, exhausted from lack of sleep the past few days, and hungry for the art. So I can’t pretend to be able to paraphrase the show’s purview, other than to say that it’s every bit as profound as the long life lived by that artist, a complete meal, an opportunity to meet the artist from first principles without interference.

And so I begin by recommending this show, a colossal collection of wonderful works, complemented throughout by photographs taken by O’Keeffe’s husband Alfred Stieglitz. There are a few observations I’d make that might be useful or not. But in the end you’ll decide for yourself, only please do go see the show, which is on until July 30th.

My mind is still full of a performance of Brahms’ Third Symphony that I encountered from the Toronto Symphony last week, brought back to me as I came home from the AGO by the serendipity of the radio playing that soulful third movement. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe Brahms and O’Keeffe have a few things in common.

While Brahms is a much beloved composer, he is understood as being a bit out of synch with the most original and provocative composers of his time, a throwback in some ways to stylistic objectives from a half-century before. So long as composition is a kind of pissing contest, where new is good and something beautiful is suspect, Brahms won’t be respected, at least not as much as I think he should be respected. But if you step outside that paradigm to look at the composition on its own terms, on the skill with which the materials are handled, one stops worrying so much about being new.  That old-style fetish for newness never worked for me.

O’Keeffe was miraculously long-lived, straddling different eras. That can mean that by the time you’re old, you seem like a relic, at least compared to the artists like Jackson Pollock or Vincent Van Gogh who died young and never had to confront their legacy or to see the next brash new thing to come along.

I am reminded too of Lawren Harris, with whom she was a near-contemporary. Both artists gave us abstracted urban images as well as stylized landscapes. His best were mountains, while hers are desert shapes, including mountains. Both Harris and O’Keeffe give you a landscape un-spoiled by any sign of a human imprint.  Their mountains are metaphysical, or at least they invite the metaphysical reading some would make, because they’re so intensely abstract.


I pulled out “The Idea of North” just now. Speaking of “north” her mountains and landscapes can give you an idea of south.

They seem to be cousins in the way they let shape and colour work for them irrespective of too much differentiated reality. Instead we’re in a place reminding me at times of stain-glass, recalling the epithet “cloisonism” that was used to describe Gaugin & Denis (although the analogy probably doesn’t fully apply). Gaugin & Denis are sometimes cartoon-y, with outlines and colours filled in after, not unlike a cartoon from an old-fashioned newspaper: which makes for a sort of abstraction, a kind of symbolism if you will.

Another word that I use for Harris comes to mind for O’Keeffe, namely “reified”. Her intense abstraction of things brings us to another place as though in contemplation of the object. I couldn’t help noticing that one of the paintings of flowers took notice of how photography –possibly her close exposure to Steiglitz’s work, possibly her own –showed her new ways of showing objects in close-up. When you look at some of her flowers or skeletal structures, and see the ways she moves them within the frame, moving focus and perspective, I find it astonishing when you consider that this is all before digital imaging: although perhaps she did play around with enlargers, which are analog devices giving you some of the same effects. But she managed to give us views of things that are literally impossible in life, but are hyper-real in her work, after being conceived somewhere, presumably in her head.

There is something profoundly sane about her work. She gives us de facto images, not sentimental, not dynamic, but brilliantly static and in the moment. Of course when we’re staring at a picture of a pile of bones, we shouldn’t expect them to move. But her images are still and calm and feeling so centred, as to imply something spiritual at work. Her bone compositions have been read as religious even though, as far as I know, she denies such interpretation of her work. It might be the flip-side of the eroticising, when someone reads something religious, but in each case her classically organized compositions (see why I think of Brahms?) invite or at least leave room for projection by the viewer.

I will stop at this point, other than to say, again, that this show invites you to re-acquaint yourself with an artist you may think you know, to make a fresh start, to get back to first principles. Please give the AGO a visit.

You have nothing to lose but your assumptions.

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