O'Keeffe and the pull of the Southwest. The National Gallery of Art makes a case for her greatness and influence

GEORGIA O'KEEFFE, the great American painter, knew what she wanted as an artist, and swooped down on it as fiercely as an eagle. There is a story told by her confidant and fellow artist Juan Hamilton which illustrates that. ``She didn't really care what the ground rules were. She was interested in living in New York City in the Shelton Hotel, so she could [be] up high and could look down over the city. She went to the [front] desk and they said `Miss O'Keeffe, this is a gentlemen's hotel. We don't allow women to take rooms.' She said, `That's alright. I'm not leaving until I get a room.' Well, by the end of the afternoon she had a room, and she and [her husband Alfred] Stieglitz moved in.''

From her aerie at the Shelton, Georgia O'Keeffe painted some of the most arresting pictures in the stunning new centennial exhibition of her work, which has opened at the National Gallery here. The misty gray ``East River at the Shelton,'' ``The Shelton with Sunspots,'' and ``Radiator Building - Night, New York,'' with Stieglitz's name flashing in red neon lights, were all done in that period, the mid- to late 1920s.

Her life and her art were inextricably linked with Stieglitz, the celebrated photographer who launched her fame in 19l6 by hanging her first abstract works, shown him by a friend at his Gallery 291. ``Finally a woman on paper,'' he is reported to have said. In 1929 O'Keeffe spent four months away from Stieglitz in the New Mexico landscape that her art craved. And in a 1930 letter to her friend Dorothy Brett she wrote ``...the Mountain calls one and the desert - and the sagebrush - the country seems to call one in a way that one has to answer it.'' Two years later she wrote to New Mexico artist Russell Vernon Hunter, ``I am divided between my man and a life with him - and some thing of the outdoors - of your world - that is in my blood - and that I know I will never get rid of - I have to get along with my divided self the best way I can.'' Starting in the '30s she spent half her year living with Stieglitz in New York and Lake George, the other half in the adobe house at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, where she felt she did her best painting. In 1949, after settling his estate, she moved permanently to Ghost Ranch.

Fifty years of pictures are included in this show, which fills 12 rooms at the gallery, appropriately designed as though they were part of a sprawling white adobe house basking in the light. Blowups of Stieglitz's famous photos of O'Keeffe herself, which she had earlier donated to the gallery, meet you at the entrance. The rooms include 100 works selected by co-curators Jack Cowart, the gallery's curator of 20th-century art, and Juan Hamilton, the potter and sculptor representing O'Keeffe's estate. Carter Brown noted, ``By presenting some highlights of her career, which spanned nearly 70 years, we can demonstrate the tremendous influence she has had on 20th-century art.''

The show, underwritten by a grant from the Southwestern Bell Foundation, runs at the National Gallery through Feb. 2l, then travels to the Art Institute of Chicago (March 5-June 19), the Dallas Museum of Art (July 31-Oct. 16), and finally to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Nov. 19-Feb. 5, 1989).

The O'Keeffe exhibition focuses on the cream of her career and its influence: abstractions, landscapes, flower paintings, cityscapes, still lifes and figure studies done in oils, watercolors, pastels, and charcoal. They span the prime time of her career from 1916 through 1965 and include views of Abiquiu, N.M., where she lived in her beloved Ghost Ranch, and Lake George, where she lived because of Stieglitz, as well as black irises, clamshells, animal bones and skulls hung with flowers, shells, skyscrapers, stars and sunrises, hills, churches, patios, and clouds.

Mr. Hamilton says that Georgia O'Keeffe, before her death at 98, talked with Carter Brown and with him about this centennial exhibition of her work. Asked if she had one favorite painting she insisted must be included, Hamilton says, ``No, she didn't have favorite children that way. She liked different paintings for different reasons.'' He adds, ``Some of her greatest works were done in a day or a day and a half. There are many historians who feel that Miss O'Keeffe is one of the preeminent American artists, and some who do not particularly care for her work. She's certainly historically one of the great American painters. But for what reasons and what body of work, that is still going to be subject to debate for quite some time.''

An illustrated catalog for this show was prepared by Jack Cowart, Hamilton, and the gallery's research curator, Sarah Greenough, who selected and annotated a riveting series of 125 previously unpublished letters O'Keeffe wrote from 1915 to 1981. The letters include those to Stieglitz, to many of her artist friends, and to celebrities as diverse as Eleanor Roosevelt, Sherwood Anderson, Aaron Copland, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

The letters are like paintings in words, done in a stream-of-consciousness style reminiscent of James Joyce, and they shimmer with life.

To Russell Vernon Hunter she wrote: ``Try to paint your world as tho you are the first man looking at it - the wind and the heat - and the cold - the dust - and the vast starlit night.''

To a Mr. Milliken who was the director of the Cleveland Art Museum she said of his request to write about her painting ``The White Flower'': ``It is easier for me to paint it than to write about it. and I would so much rather people would look at it than read about it. ... Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me and as I have come to think of painting it is my effort to create an equivalent with paint color for the world - life as I see it.''

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