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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.