Reflections from Chicago

Marsden Hartley at the O'Keeffe-Another Man in a Woman's Museum

Date June 4, 2008 at 10:00 PM

Publication THE magazine

Categories Performing Arts


Don't get me wrong; I love Georgia O'Keeffe's art and appreciate the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, especially in light of the fact that it is one of the few museums in the world dedicated to the work of a woman artist. I also admire Marsden Hartley's work, and thought that Marsden Hartley and the West was a wonderful show. However, I find it distressing that in the ten years that the Museum has been open, so many of their exhibitions have focused on or included predominantly male artists.

I understand that it's part of the Museum's mission to position O'Keeffe in the Modernist tradition, and it is certainly important to place women artists in art history, rather than viewing them as part of a sub-category. But it seems that in its zeal to valorize O'Keeffe in the Modernist canon, the Museum has ignored or minimized other traditions that could help to broaden the understanding of her work.

To me, O'Keeffe's work represents a pivotal moment in the history of women's long struggle for aesthetic freedom and equity. For centuries, women who wished to be artists were denied training. The most they could hope for was that if their fathers were artists they would be taught in their ateliers. Even then, women weren't allowed to study the nude. This virtually excluded them from the realm of high art, which required both life-drawing skills and an understanding of anatomy. If they were able to overcome these obstacles, they still had to work within a male-centered iconography, trying as best they could to insert their own perspective into historic or allegorical subjects. Only with the advent of abstraction did women have any real chance because-for the first time-they could forge their own iconography.

Georgia O'Keeffe was a pioneer in translating a female sense of self into visual imagery. Unfortunately, her early paintings were met with extremely simplistic critical responses. Male critics wrote about her work as if had sprung not from her brush and brain, but directly from her womb. Understandably, this type of interpretation incensed O'Keeffe as it demeaned her artistic power. As a result, she was unable to realize that in the 1970s the Feminist art movement brought with it an entirely new understanding of the many ways in which gender can inflect iconography, one that did not carry with it the taint of inferiority with which women's art had always been branded.

A similar understanding soon began to inform critical writing about homosexual artists like Marsden Hartley. I have been interested in Hartley's work since the early 1980s when

I read an article in ArtForum by John Perreault about the painting Abelard the Drowned, Master of the "€˜Phantom.' Perreault's essay was a revelation, as it took into account Hartley's sexual orientation in his reading of the picture, allowing me to see Hartley's art in a whole new way.

In order to understand what a surprise Perreault's article was, imagine the climate then-issues of gender, race, or sexual orientation had not yet been integrated into the art discourse.

In the catalogue for the Hartley show, curator Heather Hole comments, "The connection between body and landscape is very much present in Hartley's later New Mexico work."€

The same could certainly be said for O'Keeffe. In her case, the landscape takes on the contours of the female body, something that is evident in her work but rarely commented upon in the Museum's publications. Nevertheless, the largely female audience that is drawn to the Museum seems to recognize the connection between their own gendered body experiences and O'Keeffe's imagery.

The Hartley exhibition explores his responses to the New Mexico landscape, when he traveled here in 1918 and later when he returned to Europe and used his memories of the New Mexico landscape to explore themes of loss, desolation, and grief. The first part of the show deals with the pastels that Hartley created during the eighteen months when he lived in New Mexico. His hope was to create an authentic American art, a notion very popular in the Stieglitz circle of which Hartley was an early member.

At the press preview, Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the O'Keeffe Museum, suggested that O'Keeffe was the only one of this circle to succeed in creating such an art. To illustrate Lyne's contention, it might have been illuminating to juxtapose some of O'Keeffe's and Hartley's landscapes, instead of hanging them in separate galleries-and not only to test her thesis. There might have been other lessons to be learned through such juxtapositions-for instance, something about the differences between male and female perspectives in art, a distinction that seems to often elude even the most sophisticated of viewers. For if O'Keeffe's mountains suggest breasts, a Hartley painting like New Mexico Recollection #13 presents trees as symbolic phallic forms.

This leads to a discussion of some other omissions. For example, unlike most of the artists who were chosen for the show on Women of the Stieglitz Circle, there are numerous women artists of O'Keeffe's generation whose work can stand up to hers. Showing them together would create another important context in which to see and evaluate O'Keeffe's particular contributions.

There have also been many artists who have painted and photographed the New Mexico landscape. Why not explore the differences between their visions and O'Keeffe's, not in separate galleries but side by side? Generally, the Museum seems to refrain from directly comparing any work with O'Keeffe's. Another example, the Flowers of Distinction exhibition, which presented O'Keeffe's flowers in relation to Andy Warhol's. There was a painting by each artist that appeared to be the same flower; how interesting it would have been had they hung next to each other. But again, each artist's work was shown in different galleries.

Finally, even though the original mission of the O'Keeffe Museum involved placing O'Keeffe's work in a Modernist context, who's to say it cannot and should not be broadened? At this point, there has been universal recognition that Feminism has had a profound impact on contemporary art. Now it has to seep into the Museum on Johnson Street. One of the most important implications of the Feminist challenge to art history is that it made clear the limits of Modernism.

Particularly vexing is the Modernist insistence upon a linear view of art history, a white male lineage into which a few women and artists of color are placed. It is long overdue for this limited narrative to be replaced with a vision that is more diverse and representative, especially at a museum dedicated to a woman who supported the National Woman's Party, one of the most radical Feminist groups in American history.