An Invitation to Vast Spaces, Inner Recesses

GEORGIA O'KEEFFE believed that painting should speak for itself. She is one of those artists whose work can communicate directly with the open-minded viewer.

This does not mean that her work is without its contained, even secretive symbolism. But her manner of painting is down to earth. It has a practical, straightforward character, rather like the technique of a potter or a sculptor: She molds, shapes, investigates, delves, feels the inner and outer, and she does so with as much clarity and visibility as possible. She is never vague or remote, even if some of the themes of her paintings are as intangible as night sky or as invisible as sound.

The tactility of what O'Keeffe has felt and explored, as she paints, the viewer also feels and explores. Few painters surround their viewers - invite them right into the swirling inner recesses and out into the vast spaces and over the edges of their curving horizons - as she does. These paintings really need to be experienced, and at first hand.

Though many of O'Keeffe's works are seen frequently in reproduction, they do not, in fact, reproduce well. Paint surface becomes an impersonal and glossy ink surface and loses something absolutely essential to the feel of an O'Keeffe painting. Her works, more than many a painter's, need to be the size she painted them for their scale to work (though they are not on the whole large). They are best seen hanging on a wall. A traveling exhibition, now in London, "Georgia O'Keeffe: American and Modern" acts a s a refreshing reminder to those fortunate enough to see it that there is nothing like seeing original paintings.

Interpretive theories only complicate the experience of O'Keeffe's art; they also add a narrative, time dimension that her work does not have. Indeed, her sights always seem to be directed toward the timeless - which also happens to be the immediate. The first impression her works give, even at their most complex or apparently abstract, is of bold statement, of unfussed self-disclosure. Although her kind of painting is very far from being dry and classical, the warmth and expressive strength of her color , the roundedness and undulations of many of her forms, and the fluent modulations of her brushwork are kept in place by crisp edges and precise delineations.

O'Keeffe was, after all, the painter of weather-bared ribs and jawbones - and incisive New York skyscrapers - as well as of softer flowers, fruit, and leaves. This dichotomy of bone and flesh characterizes her unique stylistic combination of a softly applied paint with a strict economy of line and hardness of silhouette. The geometric is in counterpoint with the sensuous, the controlled with the free: Within the hard bone or the crisp petal, O'Keeffe finds the lyricism of poetry or song.

Her sense of scale - of mass, of monumentality, and of space - is an extraordinary quality of her art. When she paints the creased hills or furrowed cliffs, the massive fissures and folds are reduced to the context of surprisingly small canvases; yet they do not lose their scale or become small and distant. They always seem, in close-up, larger than life in their simplification. They are felt, handled, and rounded as if by her own forming hands quite as much as by geology. These are not depictions; they are remakes in painting terms. Intensely near to us in O'Keeffe's picture space, they seem to have both weight and insubstantiality. Like good homemade loaves of bread, after rigorous kneading they rise lightly. If the gigantic only seems all the more monumental for being reduced, the same happens in reverse, when something actually small is enlarged by O'Keeffe. The flower becomes cosmic.

She once said that she generally painted only what she knew well. She painted from certainty, knowledge, familiarity. But, all the same, her matter-of-factness is at the service of some very strange images. Even an apple or an oak leaf can become far from ordinary, a figment in a dream, super-real. Paintings that to her were unmistakably portraits, to the rest of the world look like purely abstract works.

Her own words about her work were often spare, rather fragmentary, or simply factual. But some of the things she said were still much more illuminating than the purple passages or Freudian interpretations of many other writers. This was what she had to say concerning the color blue, for example, when writing about her paintings of pelvic bones: "They were most wonderful against the Blue - that Blue that will always be there as it is now after all man's destruction is finished." Few words, but immensely r evealing.

THE historian of American art Charles C. Eldredge, compiled the book that accompanies the traveling show. In his long essay, while certainly concluding that O'Keeffe was one of those artists who manages to stand outside the trends and waves of her period, he endeavors to place her in context. He points out that in her youth Art Nouveau was ubiquitous, and it is clear that she owes something to the fluent, vegetative swirls and meanders of that style. Yet she made it serve her unique vision, using it for ends quite different from those of its proponents in the 1890s.

Late in her career, O'Keeffe said she felt that she had never done better than her early work, and the formal ideas that she conceived then fed her response to nature - her continual study - throughout her life.

She was a risk taker, determined to openly make her art something entirely her own. Eldredge quotes from a letter she wrote to a friend that describes this: "I look at what I've done and fear for myself - in an odd way - because it's mine and isn't quite like other things - Always a feeling of walking too near the edge of something."

This feeling of being on the edge is transmitted by many of her paintings to the viewer in intriguingly destabilizing ways. The 1929 painting "The Lawrence Tree" is a marvelous case in point. In the London exhibit it is hung so that the base of its trunk is in the top left-hand corner of the painting. This is apparently the way O'Keeffe intended it to be. It is the way it is also hung when at home in the permanent collection of the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn. But in Eldredge's book, it has been

deliberately reproduced with the foot of the tree bottom right, because it has been exhibited in this much more conventional way many times in spite of O'Keeffe's original intention.

Hung the artist's way, it has a dizzying effect on viewers, who feels as if they have had to twist around suddenly and bend over in order to look up and up the tree as it surges and twists into its own dark mass against the starry sky. It is just what one feels when faced with something incredibly high but very near at hand. Only Georgia O'Keeffe would have had the peculiar originality to make a painting with this kind of disorienting energy.

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