Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
April 7, 2010
Debra Bricker Balken Dove/O'Keeffe: Circles of Influence Exh. cat. Williamstown, MA: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 2009. 168 pp.; 139 color ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780300134100)
Exhibition schedule: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, MA, June 7– September 7, 2009
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Georgia O’Keeffe. Wave, Night (1928). Oil on canvas. 30 x 36 in. (76.2 x 91.4 cm). Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. Purchased as the gift of Charles L. Stillman (PA 1922). (All rights reserved, Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts; © 2009 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.)

Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence, a major exhibition at the Clark Art Institute curated by Debra Bricker Balken, began with an intriguing juxtaposition. Opposite the introductory text, one found Arthur Dove’s Moon (1935) mounted side by side with Georgia O’Keeffe’s last and most abstract Jack-in-the-Pulpit, VI (1930). These paintings show the two artists working in distinct styles within the modernist arc of nature abstraction. Yet the show’s organizing premise, that Dove profoundly affected O’Keeffe’s early artistic development, was here counterbalanced by a conversation. We saw the two in dialogue at mid-career, hardly referencing the deep Depression at the door, exploring an abstract vocabulary expressed in the language of painting.

The exhibition rooms unfolded a series of thematic groupings that described a history of two artists’ mutual influences. Less familiar works—Dove’s energetic Alfie’s Delight (1929) or O’Keeffe’s richly colored From the Lake I (1924)—are important statements alongside the iconic and historical pieces. In the latter category, another of O’Keeffe’s paintings from the Jack-in-the Pulpit series (1930) was here, as was her starry skyward look up into the red ganglia of The Lawrence Tree (1929). From Dove’s earliest foray into abstraction, there was an example from the series of six oils: Abstraction, No. 3 (1910–11), one of the earliest non-objective works made in the United States, and often compared to Wassily Kandinsky. Finally, among the sixty works in oil, pastel, charcoal, and watercolor were three works, which each artist owned by the other. In O’Keeffe’s home there once hung Dove’s Golden Sun (1937), with its radiant yellow greens. She also bought his Rain, an assemblage of 1924 composed of twigs over metal and glass. Also on display was the small O’Keeffe oil Abstraction (1919), a gray-toned series of convex forms that once held pride of place on Dove’s boat, the Mona, when he lived along the northern shore of Long Island.

The premise of the exhibition was based on a misreading (seeing “Arthur Dove” instead of “Arthur Dow,” certainly an understandable one) of a Katharine Kuh interview with O’Keeffe. The catalogue thesis begins with evidence of Dove’s influence on O’Keeffe by citing the quotation: “I think it was Arthur Dove who affected my start, who helped me to find something of my own” (3). In fact, O’Keeffe’s actual recollection and first statement to Kuh was that “I think it was Arthur Dow who affected my start” (Katharine Kuh, “Georgia O’Keeffe,” The Artist’s Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York: Harper and Row, 1962, 189). From the artist’s vantage point at the age of seventy-five years, she quite naturally returned to her earliest teachers as she detailed her training in New York. The passage included multiple references to Dow, with whom she studied at Columbia’s Teachers College, and his famous method of teaching Notan, based on Japanese art. His theory had been published in a textbook, Composition (1899), and led to one of her most often-cited remarks: that Dow taught her “one dominating idea, how to fill space in a beautiful way” (Kuh, 190). She also speaks briefly of her summer school work with Alon Bement, whom she calls a “follower of Dow’s talking about art” (Kuh, 189). It is perhaps this misreading that leads the Dove/O’Keeffe catalogue to favor Bement, as he is mentioned more than once as advising O’Keeffe not to read (14, 18, 21), but to look at illustrations, in the Arthur Jerome Eddy book, Post-Impressionism and Cubists (1914).

Certainly it is documented that O’Keeffe acknowledged Dove in an interview of 1943, taken by Suzanne Mullett, and quoted in her 1944 MA thesis (Suzanne Mullett, Arthur G. Dove [1880– ]: A Study in Contemporary Art, MA thesis, American University, Washington, DC, 1944): “I discovered Dove and picked him out before I was picked out and discovered. Where did I see him? A reproduction in a book. The Eddy book, I guess a picture of Fall leaves” (22). This memory references Dove’s Based on Leaf Forms and Spaces (1911–12) in the aforementioned Eddy book, which O’Keeffe found worth pursuing in 1916. She also spoke in the same interview of Dove’s work as being “of the earth” as hers was. The context of her comment—“Where I come from the earth means everything . . .”—compares Dove’s origins in the Finger Lakes region to her own (Mullett, 27). The catalogue, however, tells us that she means Abiquiu, New Mexico (25). Yet Abiquiu’s dry, sandy red rock is hardly the dark fertile earth of the Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, farming country where O’Keeffe did in fact come from.

Another oversight is the repetition of the mythic origins of Alfred Stieglitz’s first glimpse of O’Keeffe’s charcoals: “finally a woman on paper” (7). This phrase was not what Anita Pollitzer first wrote O’Keeffe concerning her works’ famous encounter with Stieglitz on New Year’s Eve of 1915 when Pollitzer dared to bring O’Keeffe’s abstractions on paper to the gallery owner. The phrase’s penciled-in addition to the Pollitzer letter has been clarified elsewhere many times,1 and deserves similar precision in this case. The Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence exhibition and catalogue propose a new genealogy for O’Keeffe that privileges Dove ahead of Stieglitz, Paul Strand, the influence of photography, and the impact of Dow’s teachings based on knowledge of Asian art. In lieu of O’Keeffe’s beginnings as the “moment escalated into myth,” such well-documented evidence bears importance for the scholarly record.

There was ample substantial proof in this visually compelling show that the two artists exchanged ideas and explored parallel paths in the difficult pursuit of abstraction. The now-missing Dove pastel, Based on Leaf Forms and Spaces (1911–12), once owned by Eddy, remains a remarkable achievement, indicative of the early phase of Dove’s project to eliminate the figurative entirely from his pictorial analysis. This was especially a critical step for Dove as it involved the erasure of his native talent for quick caricature and facile draftsmanship, an ability we see blinking through the watercolor Happy Clam Shell (1919). The Eddy book, which was on view in the first gallery of the Clark Art Institute, was opened to the illustration for Based on Leaf Forms and Spaces. On its opposite page, Eddy enjoins his reader to observe the dicta of Chinese painting, laying out ways that can help the artist to “choose a nature as a motif” and “to apply the same principle in color and form.” Did O’Keeffe actually not read the book? In fact, later in the same Kuh interview, when asked, “What artists do you most admire?” she responds, “The Chinese” (200).

The serenely focused galleries guided the viewer through the work and suggested a range of connections, such as cosmological and generative motifs, design with color, musical themes, or the example of Asian art. The focused selection was not the whole of either artist, nor did it pretend to be. Major works of O’Keeffe from the New Mexico years were absent, as were the bolder color-rich Dove abstractions from his last decade, such as That Red One or High Noon, both from 1944 (referenced in Balken’s catalogue essay (71)). Apart from the assemblage Sea II (1925) and Rain (1924), Dove’s “things,” the quirky, often encoded, assemblages that served as a point of renewal for him in the early 1920s, were omitted here. These would have been mostly irrelevant to the O’Keeffe comparisons, but Dove’s Rain does remind us of O’Keeffe’s steady support and why her work later becomes important. His reference to her “burning watercolors” documented his own turn back to the medium around 1930 (71). Curiously, nowhere does the essay mention that O’Keeffe installed Dove’s work in Stieglitz’s An American Place gallery in the 1940s (Mullett, 27) when he was too ill to come to the city.

Musical analogies seem especially apt, since O’Keeffe played the violin in her early years, and was also encouraged to make her art while listening to music, according to the teaching method of Dow. For Dove, music was an especially potent inspiration, especially in the 1920s, and is seen particularly in his many works that refer to Gershwin and jazz. For both artists, the world of natural forces—suns, moons, stars, and plant forms—are also indicative of rhythmic and pulsing harmonic connections. Thus, in the Dove/O’Keeffe grouping entitled “Nature/Emotion,” there was Dove’s exploration of sonic force in Fog Horns (1929), and opposite, his Chinese Music (1923). O’Keeffe’s reductive, symmetrical view of moon over the water, Wave, Night (1928), evokes a slow rhythm. But closest to her musical analogies (fig. 26, Music–Pink and Blue, No. 1; and fig. 49, Blue and Green Music (1921), not in the exhibition, are best known) are the fluid color shapes of From the Lake, No. 1 (1924), rich in bold color harmonies.

Another thread in the series of pairings seemed to assert Dove’s influence as supplanting Stieglitz’s promotion. For a time, and perhaps especially at age seventy-five, O’Keeffe strove to re-create her story; certainly as she neared ninety, she would undertake a number of such projects to insure that her legacy was crafted as she saw fit. Stieglitz was featured mid-way through the first gallery. Depicted in a 1915 Edward Steichen photograph, a year before O’Keeffe exhibited at 291 gallery, Stieglitz resided benignly on the sidelines above the beautifully produced Camera Work volume, inscribed by his own hand. An enlargement of Ansel Adams’s photograph of the elderly Stieglitz in his last American Gallery (ca. 1939), with the Dove painting Goat (1935) on the near wall, punctuated a Clark gallery reading nook.

In place of Stieglitz’s vigorous promotion of the merits of two of the great artists of his circle, Balken’s catalogue essay is especially strong in explaining competing critical voices. Chief among them is Paul Rosenfeld, a Yale-educated critic and writer whose famous equations in the early twenties of Dove with a “virile and profound talent” contrasted O’Keeffe’s art as “gloriously female.” These words, demonstrably close to Stieglitz’s opinions, took a turn in the gallery discreetly entitled “Freud/Gender.” The paintings here played out the sensuous embodied landscape and the artists’ immersion in nature, as in Dove’s Penetration (1924) and related works of the body in water. Rosenfeld’s Freudian-influenced prose was never less than rhapsodically purple, and certain of his offensive sexist phrases fell far from the mark (60), especially when applied in most perplexing fashion to paintings such as O’Keeffe’s The Black Spot (1919), not in the exhibition.

If only one could leave that critical interpretation in its historical period, back at a time when American women had just gained the right to vote. However, Rosenfeld’s words and interpretations did continue to influence later critics. The catalogue essay offers an excellent brief survey of early twentieth-century critics who shaped the contemporary view of Dove and O’Keeffe, often in contrast to figurative or regionalist styles. Balken surveys the trajectory of this art criticism, including the writings of the young Samuel Kootz, the reactionary Thomas Craven, the rising predominance of formalism in the writings of Clive Bell, and the generally negative reactions to early American modernism by Clement Greenberg at mid-century. Balken threads the breaks and continuities throughout the section, and recapitulates the dichotomy between Greenberg’s and Rosenberg’s views in a brief coda at the end of her essay.

The final exhibition space, entitled “Color Light,” offered work paralleling this critical discussion. Here were smaller pieces that look to the abstract inventions of mid-century. Dove’s stunning series of three abstractions in gouache, all dated to one August day in 1943, seem to announce the future. O’Keeffe’s voluptuous steam emanating from Train at Night in the Desert (1916), the result of her “watercolor evenings” in Texas in 1916, demonstrates her affinity with the soak-stain techniques of Helen Frankenthaler or Morris Louis.

To return to the beginning pairing, it is worth considering this choice in summarizing major themes of the exhibition. Dove’s Moon foregrounds a stalky brown tree-form that thrusts upward and grabs for an orb of bursting white moonlight. O’Keeffe in contrast delves into the center of the flower, a resilient plant that rises only six to eight inches above the ground, to strip down its petal and reveal the illuminated jack.

From the catalogue essay we learn that Dove—annoyed with Kootz’s recent critical article about O’Keeffe’s flowers (written in 1930)—explodes with good humor in a letter to Stieglitz: “The bursting of a phallic symbol into white light may be the thing we all need” (60). This exhibition was thus introduced with a sly reference to an unforgettable Dove remark. The balanced pairing of gendered nature forms—attuned to interior and exterior perceptions—is made manifest in the shared responses by Dove and O’Keeffe to nature meditation and immersion in the sensual landscape. Sheer fascination connects the two—one rarely experiences such a concentrated focus on two artists in conversation.

The paintings on view were strong indications of the dialogue. In newspaper accounts one noted that critics responded to Dove/O’Keeffe as a competition, weighing in on who was the better artist. Furthermore, the marketing of the exhibition in the Berkshires on billboards, announcing only O’Keeffe’s name as the exhibition title, tilted advance perception of O’Keeffe’s ascendancy. Such a frustrating hyping of the actual excellent dual exhibition thus prepared the way for misconceptions. The demonstration of the two artists’ bold pursuit of radical forms and imagery in early twentieth-century America finally did not depend upon Dove’s purported catalyst effect on O’Keeffe, nor upon O’Keeffe’s “sex appeal,” but upon well-chosen examples of the two painters observed through a sharply focused lens.

Nancy Scott
Professor, Department of Fine Arts, Brandeis University

1 Nancy Scott, “The O’Keeffe-Pollitzer Correspondence, 1915–17,” Source 3, no. 1 (Fall 1983): n. 5, discusses the letter, its later amendment between the lines, and dating to December 31, 1915 (with January 1 postmark). Sarah Whitaker Peters, Becoming O’Keeffe, Abbeville Press: New York, 1991, 34–35, reprints the entire letter wherein Stieglitz is recorded as saying: “Tell her [he said] they’re the purest, finest sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while,” and also discusses authorship of the “woman on paper” phrase (n. 23). Various authors since have challenged the authenticity of the phrase: Naomi Rosenblum, “Georgia O’Keeffe,” Art Journal 51, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 105–111; Anne Middleton Wagner, Three Artists (Three Women): Modernism and the Art of Hesse, Krasner, and O’Keeffe, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996; Barbara Buhler Lynes, “Georgia O’Keeffe, 1916 and 1917: My Own Tune,” in Sarah Greenough, ed., Modern Art in America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries, Washington, DC, National Gallery of Art, 2001, 261–69; and a recent dissertation (Ann Prentice Wagner, "‘Living on Paper’”: Georgia O’Keeffe and the Culture of Drawing and Watercolor in the Stieglitz Circle,” University of Maryland, 2005).

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