From eye catching irises, to gorgeous jimson flowers, Georgia O’Keeffe is famed in the U.S and U.K for her canvases exploring the crevices and contours of macroscopic blooms. Nevertheless, her significance as an artist, and positioning as the mother of American Modernist painting does not solely rest on these brightly colored close-ups, but upon her prolific versatility and experimentation with abstraction long before the Abstract Expressionists set up shop in the 1940s and 50s.
An indisputable landmark in the artistic development of the 20th century, (O’Keeffe was the first female artist exhibited in New York’s Museum of Modern Art), it is therefore a surprise that she is only just now receiving her first ever solo show in France, Georgia O’Keeffe, exhibiting from 8th September- 6th December at the Pompidou Center.
So why has there never been an exhibition?
Despite an otherwise strong Franco-American cultural exchange, it is for the same reason that O’Keeffe flourished in Northern America that her artwork failed to traverse the Atlantic ocean. From the start of the exhibition there is a palpable presence of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, her partner in both art and love.
Paying tribute to the pair’s dynamic relationship, the highly biographical program notes guide you into the exhibition with a tour through their entire lives together, starting in 1916, when Stieglitz became the first to exhibit O’Keeffe’s work in his New York gallery 291. From the selection of drawings presented in this first show, visible at the Pompidou is Special No. 9. By including this well-known image in the exhibition it becomes newly remarkable. Whilst the space dedicated to the 291 artists is slightly segregated, the rest of the exhibition has been curated in a relatively open plan grid layout, allowing the audience to witness the development of the expressive, firm, yet sinuous lines, which O’Keeffe was already cultivating at the beginning of her career.
Thereafter, Stieglitz devoted a yearly exhibition to O’Keeffe’s works and helped to establish her career by introducing her to highly esteemed art critics and collectors. Yet he remained reluctant to send O’Keeffe’s work to Europe, partly due to his perception of her works as too fragile, but more importantly, too precious.
Why is this exhibition happening now?
Though autumn’s iron grip is taking over, at this time of year art blooms in Paris. The art fairs cropping up all over the city are matched by exceptional exhibitions and installations in Paris’ permanent art galleries and museums. Moreover, Georgia O’Keeffe arrives in the wake of a renewed drive for greater visibility for female artists. This summer alone has seen the Luxembourg Museum’s exhibition Women Painters, 1780-1830, and the Pompidou’s exhibition Women in Abstraction, which naturally branches into their current O’Keeffe retrospective.
Furthermore, having worked for MOMA, Georgia O’Keeffe’s curator, and deputy director of the Pompidou, Didier Ottinger thankfully knows more about O’Keeffe’s work than many of his French contemporaries. This has allowed him to have created not only a beautiful, but a beautifully comprehensive retrospective, comprising 100 drawings, paintings, photographs and sculptures.
Executed in a manner that is truly representative of O’Keeffe’s flowing style, the open plan layout allows you to drift uninterrupted between every era of her life and art, giving a unique opportunity for a total immersion and reflection on her body of work as a whole. With its clever curation, jutting skyscrapers can be compared to thrusting flower stamens, the Rodin-like watercolor nudes resonate with the fleshy hillsides of her favored New Mexican landscape, and loops of sun-bleached bone transform into abstracted winter roads.
It is undoubtedly a shame that it has taken this long for Georgia O’Keeffe’s animated artworks to be acknowledged in France. However, one leaves the exhibition almost thankful, as this time has allowed for a near-perfect first show to have been planned.