In this installment of MMAM, I am going to review a painting that most would be taken aback by, well at least in my circles. More over, a lot of people would question me in reviewing such a startlingly influential work of “feminist art”, me being the stone cold “misogynist” that I am (I am of course kidding, but hay, any form of espousing traditionalism now a days will get you at least a few accusations of woman-hating).
I have expressed this in other writings, but I have intuited that the whole “blame women” thing on the internet right-wing can go too far, and can smack of ressentment. But here, we are not talking about politics, although with such a work, politics are impossible to avoid; As for me personally, there is a surprising number of female artists and art meant for consumption on the political left that I find fascinating. In fact this whole series is in part an expression of my admiration of “degenerate art”. It seems that a lot of people think modern art is just a leftist thing, and for the majority of it in terms of the politics behind a lot of modern art, it is. However, to cast it aside as worthless, to me at least, this seems like a pig-headed approach; As I stated in the first installment of MMAM, the Right should by and large get over this stigma against what normals term “modern art”.
As for the female artist part, a critical theory professor whom i deeply admire said to me once (a woman herself) “Gio, you have the most complex and complicated relationship to women as a whole that i have ever seem”….I take that as a deep compliment, so perhaps that illuminates my disposition a little bit! moving right along…
Georgia O’Keeffe was a giant, a luminary and a seminal artist who basically kicked off American modernism as a whole. Her body of work ranges from the famed floral arrangements, that usually gave preference to the intimate single flower folds themselves, to modernist landscapes of the wild west, photographic techniques she manipulated, etc. She is considered a trailblazer in feminist art because she was the first female artist to actually take on abstraction long before the women of AB-EX like frankenthaler, Joan Mitchell, Mary Abbot, etc. Even contemporary women visual artists that have a metaphysical and even mystical direction in their works like Yayoi Kusama, Marina Abramovic, Martina Hoffman, and my internet pal Joan Pope (to name a few) are in debt to the works of O’Keeffe.
O’Keeffe had a uniquely spiritual sensibility that was deeply tied to the natural world, both of the earth and the landscape, and of the intimacy and alluring mysteries of female nature. As Jordan Peterson says (but many comparative mythologists of greater depth said before him), the feminine is often chaotic, but more in tune with the earth, rebirth, neutering, etc. To me there is no doubt that O’Keeffe’s work inspired feminists artists for generations to come, but beyond the (rather base, as politics corrupts everything) political dimensions of her work, I wish to highlight this spiritual impulse.
In “Grey lines” we see another work of her many floral abstractions, the inner lines of calla-lilies or the desert flowers she came cross on her many jaunts to the new Mexico desert displayed in vivid three dimensional folds. In other articles in the future, I wish to explore her landscapes, but for now, keep in mind her deep connection to the location that she was in; O’Keeffe would often collect flowers, bone fragments or whole sculls, various roots and bits of rocks or strange arrangements of natural things, pluck them from the environment and incorporate their image into her abstract landscapes. She was not only one of the first women to work in the world of abstraction ,but also one of the first AB-EX painters to take inspiration right from the natural world (like Frankenthaler would after her).
to O’Keeffe, nature comes with a spiritual and erotic ecstasy, and this is glaringly apparent in this famous work of hers. One quote of hers that strikes me is “God told me if I painted that mountain enough, i could have it”; “Grey lines” and many of her famed works, despite her denials that this was deliberate, shocks the viewer due to the works being, as one art critic said at the time, “strongly vaginal”. Those sensuous folds of the landscape and the inner pedals of flowers represents the curved and soft fleshy part of the female anatomy indeed. But do not be fooled by our jaded perceptions of the hyper-politicized art world now a days, because Georgia O’Keeffe isn’t just spearing period blood on a canvas or doing unsightly things with cotton wool!
Not only did O’Keeffe posses a keen eye for representation and painterly skill, but her work must be differentiated from shameless, scandalous, an ideologically-driven shock appeal. These “vaginal works” come off as rather dignified, yet bold and powerful. It is not the puritanical concealing of female sexuality and aesthetic eroticism, the way an evangelical mother would describe “flowers” to connote female anatomy. O’Keeffe, at least in my opinion, is neither a resentful feminist shock artist, or an artist of bland and empty pleasantness. She strays the line between boldness and primal female energy, and being a dignified and refined artist (if that makes sense).
Eroticism in this work and many others of O’keeffe is not a debased and crass form of titillation, or an overt political statement, but an artistic venue of transference and transfiguration between the natural world and the total being of the feminine. Furthermore, her art work would be considered tame, even “trad” in this day and age in certain respects. This may seem like a haphazard statement, but the way to think of this fast and loose thesis on the latent “tradness” of Georgia O’Keeffe is to compare her ecological eroticism with the way “Eco-feminism” is considered the most traditionalist form of feminism. In some ways O’Keeffe was an artist version of an Eco-feminist considering her expansive work exploring the intimate workings of nature, both from without and from within.
When this and other works came out mind you, the public was mortified, and scoffed at these large displays of sex-filled allusions. These paintings were further scandalized by O’Keeffe’s photography efforts, which put her at the absolute beginnings of the medium as a stand-alone form of art itself. Long before Francesca woodman, O’Keeffe was the archetype of the female photo-artist, taking series of photos using herself as the main subject, often in the nude, in different poses and in vast landscapes. These photos, like “Grey lines” is erotic, but an erotic that is filled with mystique, and a metaphysical sensibility that is almost wholesome, yet jolts out and touches you intimately. Her work is a force of nature in itself.
O’Keeffe was also one of the first artists to incorporate photographs in every stage of her artistic practice, often producing works like “Grey lines” after extensive photographing of different plants. Her watercolors of female nudes were often done after taking nudes of herself, as she became one of the most photographed artists in America, being photographed across every stage of her adult life until her death; O’Keeffe realized the artistic spaces of the body itself, those warm and soft tones of color, meant to allude to the folds of creamy and radiant skin of flowers and of the self. The body of nature and of the feminine becomes a living and breathing work of art, lifted into the realm of the divine through artistic exploration. O’Keeffe in this sense is comparable to the works of her friend Frida Kahlo, in fact the comparisons are pretty obvious.
on a side note, a contemporary artist i have mentioned that i can’t help but see a parallel with O’Keeffe’s work is that of visual artist Joan Pope of “SexDeathRebrith“. Joan combines much of the same blend of self-made erotic photography, the occult and esoteric, the sublime intimacy with nature etc. I highly recommend her stuff.