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Austin Chronicle Texas by Georgia

By Rebecca S. Cohen

MARCH 23, 1998:  When she lived inthe Texas Panhandle, Georgia O'Keeffe stared across the vast empty spaces and walked down windy roads until her clothes were the color of dust. She ingested the light and landscape, gobbled it down, and nurtured her artist-self. Later, throughout the more than threescore years left to her, she employed the aesthetic information she had gathered in Texas in nearly every painting and drawing she produced. Can Texas claim her as its own? O'Keeffe taught art in Amarillo public schools in 1912 and 1913, then left to study with renowned educator Arthur Wesley Dow at Columbia University's Teachers College. She returned to Canyon in 1916 to teach at West Texas State Normal College, then left again two years later, never to live in Texas again. Her affection for the place, however, clearly lingered.

"O'Keeffe and Texas," the current exhibit at the Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum in San Antonio, aims to illustrate the critical relationship between the artist and the Texas landscape. Guest curator Sharyn R. Udall's catalogue essay begins with a description of the profound influence that Dow, her teacher, had on O'Keeffe. He rekindled her desire to paint, introduced her to Chinese art, honed her teaching skills, and readied her for Texas, says Udall, by sharing ideas about restoring art to its "proper role ñ one of expression, not imitation." His notions presumably gave O'Keeffe permission to appropriate the Texas Panhandle for her own purposes.


Georgia O'Keefe, 1918

Udall divides the exhibition into five themes: landforms, light, geometric patterns, solids and voids, and lines. To illustrate these themes, she has assembled 50 paintings from museums and private lenders across the country. The exhibit includes works painted between 1914 and 1964, making the point that long after she left the state, O'Keeffe was still drawing from a Texas well for inspiration. Frankly, the organization (or lack thereof) of the paintings within the galleries makes it difficult, though not impossible, for the viewer to come to the same conclusion.

For all the curator's hard work and didactic presence through signage and the catalogue itself, the exhibition might have resulted in not much more than a mediocre mini-retrospective of Georgia O'Keeffe's prolific output of work, except for the presence of the Canyon Suite paintings. These 28 small watercolors painted in Texas between 1916 and 1918 constitute a separate exhibition on loan from the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art & Design in Kansas City. By looking at these paintings, one understands immediately the point slowly driven home by Udall's catalogue essay and the random assortment of O'Keeffe paintings throughout the galleries.

At a time when most American painters were making figurative work, realistic landscapes, and cityscapes, this artist hunkered down on the plains of the Texas Panhandle to investigate abstraction. She reduced the great chasms and canyons of the Southwest to simple geometric forms and peered into the night sky, painting the first light of day as if it were a solid archway of color. In both early watercolors and later paintings, sky blue-pink rolling hills tuck seductively into valleys, billowy white puffs of smoke from a train disappear against the horizon line. One quick look at Canyon Suite, and you see a foreshadowing of much of the work that comes later.


Evening, 1916

O'Keeffe gave the Canyon Suite paintings, 28 of the 50 watercolors she painted while in Texas, to a man named Ted Reid, whom she befriended at Normal College. Born and raised in the Texas Panhandle, Reid loved the countryside and was drawn to O'Keeffe because she shared his affection for it. "Did you ever see her watch a great storm?" he asked the artist's friend Anita Pollitzer years later. "I knew and loved that country well, and here, for the first time, was someone who felt the same way about it. There was never anyone in the world like her in her appreciation of such things." It was Reid and O'Keeffe's love of the landscape that drew these two friends together initially and World War I that pulled them apart.

The works in the "O'Keeffe and Texas" exhibit are not displayed chronologically, which is fine. But the visual clues that might have tied the paintings made after 1918 to Texas are tenuous. Then there are the institutional distractions, such as the way that Pink and Green Mountains No. 1 is covered with a velvet shade that must be pulled up in order to see the little painting. While it is true that protecting watercolors from light can be a conservator's nightmare, I can't say that I've ever seen a museum deal with the issue in quite this way. It becomes impossible to judge whether Pink and Green Mountains has any relationship to O'Keeffe's 1942 oil painting Gray Hills, which hangs next to it, unless you bring a friend to hold up the drape while you step back to take in both paintings. In the next section of the exhibition, the viewer has an opportunity to see study sketches that preceded Roof With Snow (it's always a pleasure to have insight into the artist's process), but the final painting is hardly a masterwork. And is the curator implying that Red Barn, Lake George New York, painted in 1921, qualifies as a Texas-inspired painting because O'Keeffe painted a yellow house while in Amarillo? It's a stretch.

It's a stretch of the day to drive to San Antonio to see this exhibition, but it's still worth the trip ñ small criticisms aside ñ if you are fond of the work of Georgia O'Keeffe. The McNay offers a broad assortment of the artist's familiar imagery, many of the paintings quite wonderfully done. And as this is an artist whose work suffers when viewed only in books and photographs, the trek is worthwhile in order to apprehend the scale of each painting, the variable surface (shiny to matte), and the subtle color changes.


Light Coming on the Plains, 1917
If all this talk of O'Keeffe has you longing to see more of her artwork and to better understand from whence it sprang, this is a felicitious time for you. In addition to the McNay exhibit, the Austin Museum of Art Downtown is providing a couple of opportunities to explore O'Keeffe's art and influences. The museum's current exhibition, "American Images: The Southwestern Bell Collection of 20th-Century Art" includes a lovely O'Keeffe painting: Black Maple Trunk-Yellow Leaves, a 1928 oil painting on canvas. Its image is reproduced here, but as I've suggested, reproduction hardly does it justice. At first glance, it is an easy painting: a pretty tree, with a dark solid trunk, yellow-green leaves, and blue sky. But if you stand in the museum and stare at the work, the bifurcated trunk of the tree transforms into two dark bodies, standing close, entwined, wreathed in lime green foliage. O'Keeffe has, as least to my eye, a penchant for infusing inanimate objects with an omnipresent hint of sexuality.

What state wouldn't want to claim her as its own? New Mexico's Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe recently organized an exhibition called "O'Keeffe's New Mexico: Native American, Hispanic, and European Traditions, 1880-1996." AMOA is bringing it to town to follow up the Southwestern Bell collection show. "O'Keeffe's New Mexico" will present only about eight paintings by the artist, focusing instead on presenting a visual survey tracing the diversity of visual arts traditions in New Mexico from 1880 to the present. Perhaps the artist's birth state, Wisconsin, will next attempt to lay claim to having shaped her vision. Then O'Keeffe's New York?

Despite her protestations to the contrary, Georgia O'Keeffe could express the feel of a place with words as well as images, especially when that place was Texas. Listen: "It's very still...only one cricket and myself awake in all the Panhandle...and it's four in the morning. No wind tonight. I rode and rode...from the glare of the middle afternoon till long after the moon...a great big one...bumped his head just a little...enough to flatten one side a little...as he came up out of the ground...light. First plains...then as the sun was lower the canyon...a curious slit in the plains...cattle and little bushes in the bottom pin heads...so small and far away...wonderful color...darker and deeper with the night. Imagination makes you see all sorts of things."


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