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Modernism rising: O’Keeffe’s Sunrise.

Oddly Coupled

By Nadine Wasserman

Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence

Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Mass., through Sept. 7

While studying at the Art Students League of New York, Georgia O’Keeffe was able to see firsthand the new modernist work that was being shown at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery. Initially apprehensive about modernism, O’Keeffe later became one of the most significant American modernists of the 20th century.

Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence looks at the roots of O’Keeffe’s transformation by focusing on the relationship between O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove. Dove, considered the first American abstract painter, was part of Stieglitz’s circle. In 1914, as she was struggling to understand and appreciate the avant-garde while trying to find her own style, O’Keeffe saw a reproduction of Dove’s pastel Based on Leaf Forms and Spaces. It was this image, she later claimed, that led her to seek others. According to the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition, once she had seen them in person they “had a lasting impact on O’Keeffe, becoming embedded not only in her memory but in her visual lexicon. Dove’s pastels emerged, then, not only as a significant progenitor to O’Keeffe’s radical reformulations of nature but as a footprint that partially marked the subsequent course of her work.” It was Dove’s ease with abstraction that appealed to her, as well as his intuitive approach to nature.

As O’Keeffe’s work developed, she and Dove shared an aesthetic kinship that did not go unnoticed by critics of the time. In the 1930s, when O’Keeffe was beginning to spend more time in New Mexico and her work was becoming more representative, Dove began to look at O’Keeffe’s early watercolors for renewed inspiration in his own increasingly abstract work.

The relationship between Dove and O’Keeffe is indeed compelling, yet something about the exhibition felt forced. The topic was perhaps too narrow, and I left the exhibition feeling unconvinced of its thesis. It doesn’t help that one of the walls exhibits this O’Keeffe quote: “I think it was Arthur Dove who affected my start.” Think? If the artist herself was unsure, how can we be convinced?

What’s also bothersome is that there is little rhythm to the exhibition. It felt more like fits and starts, as if it is unsure of what it wants to be: art exhibition, historical exhibition, an exhibition based on aesthetic relationships, or one based on thematic relationships. There were some lyrical moments, however. One sight line is commanded by O’Keeffe’s Red & Orange Streak, which is intensified by the nearby presence of Dove’s Sunrise, as well as his March, April and his Golden Sun, which was owned by O’Keeffe. A similar dynamism works for a group of watercolors that includes Dove’s Untitled (Mountain and Sun) and Lake Ontario stacked next to O’Keeffe’s Sunrise (pictured) and Evening Star No. VI. These sections work well, while others fall flat. Across the way is an unfortunate pairing of Dove’s Happy Clam Shell with O’Keeffe’s Slightly Open Clam Shell. It’s almost an insult, as is the section dedicated to Freud and gender. If O’Keeffe was uncomfortable with it, why reopen that can of worms without exploring it fully? While this subject is analyzed more thoroughly in the catalogue, it does little here to enhance the visual aspects or main thesis of the exhibition.

The decision to have separate topic headings made the exhibition choppy and incoherent. The addition of contextual materials worked in some cases, such as showing the Eddy book with the crucial Dove reproduction, but other inclusions were just distracting. How does seeing a copy of AA Brill’s translation of Freud help visitors better understand O’Keeffe’s relationship to Dove? In light of the curator’s involvement in the recent exhibition Action/Abstraction: Pollock, de Kooning, and American Art, where contextual material was essential to the exhibition, the approach makes some sense, but it doesn’t work well here.

Despite the flaws in the exhibition presentation, the individual works on display are phenomenal examples by both artists, with works coming from both major museum collections and private ones. It wouldn’t hurt to know a bit about the topic before going to the exhibition, so if you are in Albany on July 16 at 6 PM, you can learn about O’Keeffe’s life and friendship with Dove, and his role in the development of her early abstractions, from the Clark’s senior curator Richard Rand, who will give a lecture at the Albany Institute of History & Art.

The exhibition is a first awkward step for the Clark into the complex world of 20th-century art. Given their exhibition track record and the incredible conferences and symposia they host on contemporary art, architecture and film, there is little doubt they will get better with practice.

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