From 1912 to 1916, Stieglitz mounted four exhibitions of children’s art at his 291 Gallery (so named after its address on Fifth Avenue) that reflected his increasing attraction to a new model of the feminine: the child-woman. O’Keeffe served as his prototype, and the SDMA exhibition includes his most famous photographs of her. Much more interesting than Stieglitz’s specimen photos, though, are O’Keeffe’s own pictures. Her iconic imagery, the billowing labial flower petals that swell through the picture space with an almost palpable blend of fleshiness and airiness, and the abstract landscapes with their hot reds and glassy blues racing or jagging across a horizontal pitch, are exhibited close to the earlier, “girlish” work that so attracted Stieglitz.
O’Keeffe had taught elementary school and believed that children’s frontal attack and boldness of line and color were a pure intuitive expressiveness, an unself-conscious streaming of perception and feeling. She developed in a very short time from a primitivist to the Georgia O’Keeffe whose performances elicit spectators’ oohs and aahs. In 1915 and 1916, she produced drawings and watercolors of abstract landscapes saturated in atmospherics; they owe something to the work of artists Stieglitz was exhibiting, to Rodin’s delicate washes of nudes and dancers and Arthur Dove’s auroral semiabstractions. O’Keeffe’s signature forms — vulval, tissued, aerated — were already settling into place. But in 1917 she also made an intentionally crude picture of a yellow house sided by two out-of-ratio sunflowers. It’s an homage to the children’s art she admired but also the statement of a pictorial blatancy she never wanted to give up, never would give up, even as her art became technically more refined and her theme of the sexuality of the natural order more elaborated. The house picture shares its wall with the most pleasure-giving thing in the show, a thinned-out watercolor of a red canna lily that floats on the paper as a rash, unmediated flush of sexual desire.
Georgia O’Keeffe and the Women of the Stieglitz Circle
San Diego Museum of Art 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park
Through Sunday, September 28. For additional information, call 619-232-7931.