for those lucky or unlucky enough to be standing–in the rain and cold– in the line wrapped around the museum with me earlier today, thank you for not griping or knocking into me with your umbrellas too much. i braved the huddled, irritated masses today to catch the exhibition before it decamped and it was well worth it. one of the biggest drawbacks about the whitney is also one of its biggest pluses: it’s small. so, the museum isn’t overwhelming or exhausting, it’s beautiful–architecturally unique, dark neutrals in tone, and something vaguely masculine and physical about the materials, textural–and likewise the exhibitions which come through feel intimately laid out, thoughtfully curated because there isn’t enough space for them to be disjointed. wrapped around the third floor, her abstraction paintings were simultaneously familiar and alien. beautiful. cerebral. full of light and color. dark and moody. whorls and worlds in her colors and lines. they are a headier fare than most people give them credit for and o’keeffe was a complicated woman.
in love and in a relationship for much of her adult life with the (married) photographer alfred stieglitz, she split her endeavors and homes between chicago, new york, canyon, texas (which she described as full of “terrible winds and a wonderful emptiness”) and various cities in new mexico, the fertile time from which most of her more well-known works came. she posed nude for stieglitz knowing well the controversy it would bring–the eroticism read into her works largely stemmed from these photographs–she took off from new york, travelled widely and settled in the southwest when displeased with her artistic reception in nyc, and she taught, worked and studied most of her life and lambasted her critics with the attitude, “let them see what they will.” self-possessed, curious, willing to be an outsider and judged for it, marginalized by her peers and critics for many years, she did what made her feel good, powerful–she worked, created and told them all to go to hell as much with her nude posing as with her enormous flowers. she craved distance and love and made apology for neither, and where words failed her she found the colors to express herself about beauty, alienation, talent, the natural world, her inner world. whether you’re looking at one of her jack-in-pulpit paintings or one of the more personal works (like the ones below, about her brother’s suffering of gassing during the war from which he never physically recovered or, in black abstraction, the descent into unconsciousness undergoing anesthesia to have a cyst removed), her signature is all over them. formidable. exploratory. interested.
“I know now that most people are so closely concerned with themselves that they are not aware of their own individuality, I can see myself, and it has helped me to say what I want to say in paint.”
both photos of the artist by alfred stieglitz