A major first in France, the Centre Pompidou's retrospective pays tribute to an American icon and does justice to her immense talent as a modern painter.
Georgia O'Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 101.6 cm/50 x 40 in. Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.
Photo Edward C. Robinson III © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Adagp, Paris, 2021
The Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) retrospective is not a conventional exhibition— firstly, because apart from the Musée de Grenoble, which in 2015 highlighted the analogies between her work and photography, no other institution in France has seen fit to delve into this aspect. Secondly, because this show is not a visit so much as an experience. In the open space, where the pearl-gray walls mimic Manhattan's grid layout, all the senses are awakened, although nothing can be touched or smelled. But there is a great deal to see: enormous irises and jimson weed instantly reduced to their erotic content; skyscrapers in the moonlight, where dramatic shots from below induce dizziness, and pelvic bones held at arm's length to frame the azure of New Mexico, her chosen land, to great effect. O'Keeffe's radiant masterpieces vibrate at the heart of a calm, light-filled hang of a hundred-odd drawings, paintings and photographs, and two rare sculptures (a white-lacquered phallic bronze—Abstraction, 1916—and a clay pot—Untitled, c. 1980). Movement around the exhibition is deliberately fluid: "Jasmin Oezcebi's architectural stage design helps us see that the flower paintings are contemporary with the views of New York and that the 'abstract' explorations inspired by the Texas plains coexist with the most scrupulous realism," says curator Didier Ottinger.
O'Keeffe died at 98 in Santa Fe, and her simultaneous creations bear the imprint of her century. Her country too: a macadam cowgirl, she shunned Europe and fitfully built up a "supremely American" corpus-based on buildings, barns and deserts in the wake of the Regionalists. Throughout the eight stations of this transcendental trip, which begins and ends in the patio of her hacienda in Abiquiú in front of the cherished door featured in a series, the soothing virtues of her paintings have a distinct effect. Her subtle technique, faithful to the Japanese-influenced precepts of Arthur W. Dow; her austere look and Amazon-like appearance snapped by her photographer friends, and the mystical tendencies which made her see cosmic symbols in riverbeds and winding roads all reveal a clear spirituality in her art. She was impressed by Kandinsky's essay, which she discovered in 1911 in the review Camera Work. But she created her work in her own way, and sometimes at her own expense, somewhere between "Picasso-form", "Matisse-color", Art Nouveau and Hard-edge.
Her "deviant modernity" appealed to Alfred Stieglitz, a pictorialist Pygmalion for whom she posed three hundred and fifty times, rarely clothed, during their passionate relationship. In 1916, he showed her charcoal arabesques at 291 Fifth Avenue, in his avant-garde gallery—a small Mecca in itself, a kind of antechamber where a nude by Rodin, a mountain by Cézanne, gladioli by Charles Demuth and bowls by Paul Strand stood side by side. At the end of the circuit, another room juxtaposes her mini-portraits of Hopi dolls with a few originals loaned by the Musée du Quai Branly. Like a bridge built from east to west, somewhere between the "objective truth" of straight photography and the animist culture of the Amerindian peoples, the exhibition seems like a crossing. In this, it faithfully reflects O'Keeffe's free spirit, which from Lake George to Taos submitted only to the beauty of the world.