ART REVIEW: "Georgia O'Keeffe"-Kunstforum Wien, Vienna

The show Georgia O’Keeffe at the Kunstforum Wien, aside from being a detailed and thorough look at her career, caused me to feel quite introspective beyond my normal practice of analyzing the works on display. As an American living in Austria for nine months, I’ve constantly had to negotiate my feelings of being an outsider as I attempt to engage and understand Austrian and Viennese culture. From the currency I use to the public etiquette expected of me, Austria represents a major change of lifestyle from Los Angeles. Georgia O’Keeffe, then, offered me an odd reversal of experiences, because according to the venue, this show marks the first time her work has been shown in Austria. As an American, however, I have known of her works since childhood, as she is one of the most famous of American artists, in both origin and in classification. So as I entered the exhibition, I couldn’t help but note the strangeness of the fact that as an art historian familiar with O’Keeffe, I ceased to be an outsider in this space, but instead felt at home both intellectually and in a more romantic, visual sense. Yet Austrian public, by and large unfamiliar with her work, become outsiders of a sort in their own country as soon as they walk in the door of the venue and are confronted with an unknown Americana.
Georgia O’Keeffe, From the Lake No.1, 1924
Oil on canvas
Nathan Emory Coffin Collection of the Des Moines Arts Center
Yet the entirety of Georgia O’Keeffe is derived from and tailored to the outsider perspective of its Austrian public, rather than an insider one. The show was organized and curated by the Tate Modern in the United Kingdom, the Royal Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada, and by the Kunstforum—all institutions that, by nature of their locations, naturally approach American art from a distance, and so have that audience in mind when curating the show. I couldn’t help but wonder if Georgia O’Keeffe might then, in an attempt to educate the unfamiliar public about her life and oeuvre, resort to essentializing her as the representative of American-ness in modern art, sacrificing more formal concerns in an attempt to focus solely on her temporal and spatial contexts. Fortunately, the exhibition manages to be both incredibly broad and satisfyingly deep in places, especially where her relationship with her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, is concerned. 

Grouped largely chronologically, Georgia O’Keeffe juxtaposes various subject matter with photographs by Stieglitz as well as various archival materials related to their relationship and her development as an artist. While the show rightfully belongs to O’Keeffe, an immediate highlight is actually a series of portraits of her taken by her husband in black and white depicting various isolated portions of her body, such as her hands, face, and naked torso. Combining the work of an artist with images that treat her as artistic subject provides an opportunity to conjure a fuller picture of the woman herself, because it demonstrates just how keenly art was interwoven with her life: as creator and as muse.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Door with Red, 1954,
Oil on canvas
Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk, VA, Bequest of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr.
One of the major themes from this show seems to be how O’Keeffe embodied and negotiated the contradictions and dichotomies that make up her approach to painting. Rural life versus urban scenes, abstract forms versus realistic depictions, color versus line—Georgia O’Keeffe addressed these competing concepts numerous times in her work, devoting herself fully to representing opposing aesthetics and ideals in compelling ways. Until seeing this show, I had not been familiar with her numerous paintings and charcoal drawings of the New York City skyline and architecture, since the most popularized image of her is connected with desert blossoms and cow skulls. Having examples of works that seemed to diverge so wildly from what I knew of O’Keeffe, and ultimately made me appreciate her more as an artist.

While learning about her urban subject matter was rewarding as a historian, I found the most pleasure in her incredible abstracted works, such as Nature Forms-Gasp, a 1932 painting that remarkably encapsulates her mastery over color and line. In fact, her use of color in such precise, clear ways actually satisfies the more detail-oriented part of my brain that values draftsmanship even as she still demonstrates a fundamental understanding of how colors interact and play off one another. In other words, she settles the Florentine versus Venetian school debate of old all by herself. From the Lake No. 1, and From the Lake No. 3, both from 1924, are similarly stunning and vivid formally even as they dip their toes into the slightly more figurative. Abstraction (1926) and New York-Night (Madison Avenue) (1926), placed right next to one another in the next room over, actually sent a shiver down my back as I studied them. The more I looked, the more I came to believe that O’Keeffe’s approach to abstract painting is so beloved because it is so suggestive of the familiar, the real, the tactile. Unlike artists such as Kandinsky (whom O’Keeffe found influential) and Mondrian, whose abstract paintings are much more concerned with flatness and thus feel a bit remote, images like Abstraction and New York-Night actually seem like something you could hold in your hands, even though their forms are indistinct and merely suggestive of something tangible.
Georgia O’Keeffe, New York – Night (Madison Avenue)
Oil on canvas
Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Saint Petersburg, Florida 
Of course, any show on Georgia O’Keeffe would be lacking if it didn’t have the flowers. This show is no exception, yet with the exception of Dark Iris No. 1 (1927), the other flower images on display had the problem of over-saturation—because what she did with flower paintings was so new and revolutionary, it became popular and ubiquitous, and thus seeing the works in real life feels kind of like a letdown—a bit like seeing the Mona Lisa in person after seeing her everywhere. Dark Iris No. 1 manages to avert this unfortunate fate because it actually seems a bit moody, even for a flower, and has a satisfying composition in which the bend of the flower stem both balances and echoes similar shapes in the murky gray background.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Dark Iris No. 1, 1927
Oil on canvas
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
Georgia O’Keeffe ultimately provides a wide-ranging and visually sumptuous Austrian introduction to the artist and her work. Indeed, in an effort to avoid putting her in a box, the curators wisely chose to go broad and try to include a little bit of everything—her early years, her flowers, abstract works, and her later paintings inspired by her New Mexico desert setting. Yet I would have liked some of the more controversial aspects of her life and legacy that are alluded to in the introductory wall text to have been explored in more detail. Namely, this text references her resistance to being categorized as a painter of erotic subjects and appropriated by feminist artists in the 1970s, but little in the show itself expands on these ideas further. It would have been interesting in a metatextual way, perhaps, to juxtapose her own personal struggle against being misinterpreted with works by the aforementioned “feminist artists” (who are not named) in order to balance how the show contextualizes her with male artists in her circle, including Stieglitz, Paul Strand, and Ansel Adams, among others. Since much attention in Georgia O’Keeffe is given to those who influenced her (with Kandinsky and C├ęzanne referenced specifically multiple times), the show would have felt more whole if it had completed the circle to show artists that she, in turn, inspired, however inadvertently.