Georgia O’Keeffe at the Whitney

I headed into Manhattan again yesterday to check out the Georgia O’Keeffe “Abstraction” show at the Whitney (up through January 17, 2010). Last December I saw an O’Keeffe show down in Washington, DC, which had improved my opinion of her work with some very dynamic, abstracted landscapes.

This Whitney show starts of slowly with a couple of rooms full of early watercolor and charcoal pieces from around 1916-1918. These feel like tentative experiments and don’t have a lot going on formally. Once O’Keeffe moves predominantly into oil paintings at the urging of Alfred Stieglitz, however, around 1918 or 1920, things start to get interesting. The oil paintings make you want to look for a while, both up close and at a distance. They are full of folds and undulations and smooth blending of gradations of color. Most of her abstract pieces are of the “abstracted reality” kind — that is, rather than being completely nonrepresentational, they are abstracted from reality through simplified or exaggerated shapes, close cropping, creative color, etc. Most of the pieces would be instantly recognizable as O’Keeffe, even if they are not of the macro-flower type for which she is well known. However, the final room of the exhibition does have some paintings of a very different sort — large color fields with geometric shapes in one, a grid of cloud-like forms receding into the distance in another. The show includes a few pastels here and there that look almost identical to her oils except that they’re displayed under indirect, reduced lighting. A small room in the middle of the show includes about a dozen intimate, expressive photos of her by Stieglitz.

The members preview day crowd was vocal: I couldn’t help but overhear some opinionated (and rather crotchety) gallery goers. “I can’t wait to go paint,” confided one woman to her companion. “She was very comfortable with Alfred,” another woman noted, slightly embarrassed at the photos. “Why do they stand right in front of the painting talking about dinner plans? That’s so rude!” complained a particularly bitter lady, just loud enough that of course the targets would hear it. Ah, member preview day at the Whitney…  Anyway, it’s a very nice show that’s worthy of your attention if you’re in the neighborhood.

On my way back from the Upper East Side, I stopped in to some of my favorite galleries in the Fifties to see what was going on there. If you like Sol LeWitt (I do!), there’s a very nice show of wall drawings at Pace (32 East 57th). “Forms Derived from a Cube” features large geometric figures that don’t always seem derived from cubes. I love LeWitt ink wash pieces — there’s a certain luminosity to the color that I just enjoy taking in. Several of these pieces are described as being comprised of multiple layers of washes, first gray, then yellow, then red, then blue, with each color overlapping a smaller subset of the previous washes. The resulting figure ends up as gray, orange, and dark brown, though closer examination of the washes yields beautiful details and subtleties of color with hints of blue or red peeking through.

In the Fuller Building, there’s a nice exhibition of Jacque Henri Lartigue photos at Howard Greenberg that creatively capture people and objects in motion and in flight. Around the corner on Fifth Ave, there’s a Milton Avery show at DC Moore that’s worth visiting if you’re an Avery fan. I’ve never really gotten the Avery bug, though it seems that everyone else loves his paintings and he was very influential to many artists of the Abstract Expressionist era. The one painting that really sticks out in this show is the stunning “Orange Nude,” probably the most dimensional work of his that I’ve seen. While you’re in the building, you might as well stop by Babcock Galleries to see a group show from their collection that includes some Marsden Hartleys, a Hopper drawing, and some atypical Stuart Davis landscapes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *