a disappointing trip to the De Young and Georgia O'Keefe

By Adam Springer

Is that fog?
Walking up to the De Young museum, feeling spring in the air, I was ready for whatever Georgia O’Keefe had to throw at me. The endorphin rush might have come from the bike ride, but I believe part of it was for whatever art magic I would hopefully see. “Modern nature” kept ringing through my head as I paid for the twenty-dollar ticket. What exactly is modern nature? Is it the nature of art for modern times? Is it the merging of technology and nature? Or is it just the intersection between art and nature? It turned out to be the latter. The show examines O’Keefe’s stay around of all places Lake George and the paintings she made while staying there.

With a show titled “Modern Nature” I found it amusing that I was probably the youngest person there. Senior citizens were in the majority and they all seemed to reminiscing about O’Keefe’s work. Could they really be that old? It seemed so, but that’s impossible. Eavesdropping on some of the conversations gave me a few laughs. Sweet little old ladies talking about failed marriages, cheating and husbands of the past, both dead and divorced. Others of the less chatty variety were simply admiring the pieces because they resembled velvet and were quite beautiful. It actually reminded me of home in a sense. The cute galleries around Sonoma County that sport cute paintings of landscapes and cats, perfectly designed to fit over your couch. It was a very lovely scene, if not exactly what you want from a major museum show.

The De Young Museum!
I hate to say it, but the art was not that impressive. Recent De Young shows have been spectacular. After seeing the incredible spectacle of David Hockney’s show, Georgia O’Keefe’s Lake George paintings seem more than a little quaint. Not that that’s a bad thing, like I said I’m from Sonoma where we breed quaint. Still, the renderings on some of the paintings were just ok and her pallets were actually on the ugly side. It was difficult to look at her paintings of trees without wincing. I also found the size of her paintings unimpressive. Now I know size isn’t everything in the painting world, but when I see large banners out front and in the hallways of the De Young it gives me that large work glow. Most of the pieces were small and felt insignificant.

Most of O’Keefe’s paintings in the show are early works. Chestnut Grey is obviously a painting of a Chesnutt Tree. It didn’t give off the feeling of a masterpiece or, more importantly, any indication of what O’Keefe would paint like later. The composition was boring, a large black figure that resembled a tree with two rolling hills behind it. For a landscape there wasn’t much atmosphere and I it was hard to tell whether she was attempting some kind of fog effect or had just poorly blended the sky in the background. I did enjoy her use of peach, pinks, and light hues of blue for the sky, but that’s like saying you’ve got some nice color choices, not much of a compliment.

Gosh, I don't like this
There were certainly a couple of crowd pleasers. Petunias consists of three small violet flowers that resemble satin or velvet. I sat and stared at the painting for a while because it was beautiful. As people passed by, they all commented on the fabric like quality of these petunias. “Oh its just like velvet” they would say. This made me wonder if O’Keefe was even trying to resemble velvet in the first place or was it a lucky mistake. Most of her work confused me in this same fashion. Was she trying to mimic the overall look of a petunias’ petal or was it abstracted or just poorly painted? Part of me wants to believe she did in fact successfully re-create what a real life petunia looks like, but her other paintings in the show made me question her abilities.

Just like velvet
What’s funny is that as much as I thought the show was substandard, I found O’Keefe to be a compelling personality. I share or am an heir to her concerns about nature and I find her philosophical or aesthetics positions on the mark. I especially like her take on the need for arresting images of nature:
I'll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking the time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.
In a state of becoming
Perhaps this show should make all beginning painters happy. Here was a woman who thought big, painted a lot of clich├ęd not very imaginative work and yet later became great. We should all be so lucky.

©Adam Spring and the CCA Arts Review

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