The many masks of modern art

Georgia O'Keeffe's remarkable career in art has already spanned almost seventy years - from the early days of this century, when she was one of the small handful of innovative painters translating European Modernism into American terms, to the present and her current position as one of this country's most respected artists.

She is also one of the outstanding and most beloved women of our age, a fact that makes a truly objective analysis of her work somewhat difficult in today's climate - as indeed being a woman created problems for her at the beginning of her career.

I have hesitated writing about Georgia O'Keeffe at any length for the simple reason that there seems to be no way to avoid discussing the fact that she is a woman artist. It distresses me no end to have to do so, for I believe it is the art of an artist that should be discussed and not his or her sexual, racial, religious, or national identity. And yet, every time I try to discuss O'Keeffe's art without reference to her being a woman, the response invariably brings the discussion hurtling back to the issue of her sex.

I have been informed, for instance, that I have failed to grasp the subtle beauty of her pictorial forms because I am a man, and because I am riddled with male prejudices against the ''open'' and lyrical nature of her compositions. It is stressed that she was one of the first artists to paint out of a truly womanly sensibility rather than out of a male-oriented or male-dominated one, and that my analysis of her work is invalid because I am not fully capable of taking that into account.

In short, I've been told in any number of ways that there is a very special quality about her work that no man can ever fully understand and that, as a result, no man can ever perceive her work truly - as it really is.

To me that's utter nonsense - just as it would be nonsense to say that a man should not write about Martha Graham, Virginia Woolf, or Beverly Sills because he cannot possibly know what it is like to be a woman. Or that a 20th-century American shouldn't write about Rembrandt or Hiroshige because he doesn't know what it's like to be a 17th-century Dutch painter or a 19th-century Japanese printmaker.

I have known O'Keeffe's art for almost forty years and have liked and admired some of it very much. There can be no question of her talent, creative ingenuity , integrity, and courage - nor of her historical importance. She will always occupy an important position in American art history, and her paintings and drawings will be enjoyed for many years to come. I respect her highly. Yet, every time I venture the opinion that, good as she is, she is not one of the truly major artists of this century, I receive such vocal and written condemnation (even, at times, abuse), that I have been very much taken aback.

It would be a different matter if I were criticized for my opinions of her work rather than for trying to divorce her art from the mystique surrounding it. But the offending fact seems to be that I wish to see her ''merely'' as an artist rather than as a special kind of heroine for whom one should show immediate admiration and respect.

Try as I do, I cannot understand this position. If an artist is to be worthy of respect, then that respect must be based on something solid and art-related - not on uncritical adulation based partly on his or her art, but mainly on another consideration devoid of art. If O'Keeffe is to be awarded premier status as an artist, then it must be her art which elevates her to that position, not the fact that she is a woman of extraordinary integrity, courage, determination, and wisdom. The only way to establish that is to examine her work as fully, directly, honestly, sensitively - and critically - as anyone else's.

In order to do so, I have tried my very best to take into account any and all ''prejudices'' against feminine sensibilities of which I have been accused. I have leaned over backward to understand the what, why, and how of O'Keeffe's art , and have made every effort to see as much of her art as possible in the original and in reproduction.

The end result has been twofold: it has increased my respect for her as a creative, open, and dedicated human being but somewhat diminished my respect for her as a painter.

It is my considered opinion that Georgia O'Keeffe will go down in American art history on a par with Thomas Hart Benton, and that both will be viewed in the future as important 20th-century American painters with basic flaws, but also with many extraordinary virtues and qualities.

O'Keeffe's and Benton's strengths are obvious: intense individualism; consistency in form and style; a profound awareness of the depth and range of 20 th-century Modernism - but with a steely determination to create a personal style involving American themes and the American landscape; with clarity and precision of conception and execution, as well as a remarkable sense of pictorial organization and complete absorption in their creative vision.

In addition, O'Keeffe is blessed with a high degree of formal tact - which is another way of saying that she has extraordinary taste and sensitivity - as well as with the ability to turn something ordinary into something unusually attractive.

And last, but certainly not least, she projects an expansive and lyrical vision through her art that stirs in us a sense of orderliness and serenity, a feeling of gentleness and peace, transforming the reality we know into romantically pristine pictorial images.

It is precisely here that my criticism of O'Keeffe's art begins. Not because she transforms her perceptions of reality into something romantic and ideal (every artist does that to a degree), but because that perception, while noble and well-intentioned, is essentially only skin-deep. As a result, her art, while indisputably serious and high-minded, remains basically on the surface of things , is lovely, neat, elegant, and beautifully designed - but seldom, if ever, profoundly provocative or moving.

Her intentions for art exceed what her art accomplishes. Almost all of her images make subtle references to the deeper human issues and realities. But to my mind that is essentially all they do: make reference to or point toward those realities. They do not genuinely perceive or come to grips with them - and then transform the experience of that perception and that engagement into art.

O'Keeffe's creative approach is more to streamline than to distill or transmute. She simplifies and ''streamlines'' the appearances of places and things, rather than immersing herself in their actuality, transforming that actuality through color, form, texture, line, into art.

Her ''icons'' and ''symbols of universality'' do not, as a result, ring quite true. They are certainly handsome and evocative, even genuinely beautiful in many ways. And a large number of them are definitely works of art.

But they are more lovely and fanciful than genuinely provocative or moving, are more to be looked at than experienced. In their cool, detached, and stylized elegance, they represent, at least to me, an avoidance of the fullest and deepest textures and dimensions of life. The fact that she is avoiding these dimensions has absolutely nothing to do with being a woman - or with being a man. But it has everything to do with being a human being or an artist of a certain sort.

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