Georgia O’Keeffe & Feminism

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Linda M Grasso’s aim in Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism (originally published in 2017, reissued this month) is to explore Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) in relation to two distinct phases of feminism (historically, first and second waves) in the 1910s and 1970s and the way O’Keeffe has been taken up as an iconic figure by feminists during her lifetime and since. This is a significant topic because O’Keeffe is one of the most prominent – perhaps the most prominent – female artists of the previous century; she lived through eras of feminist public activity and responded to it. The difficulty for feminists is that O’Keeffe had mixed responses to feminism and feminists – often decidedly hostile. So although O’Keeffe was a great and successful woman artist – and thus an ideal candidate as a feminist icon – her own reactions against feminism and to being classed a “woman painter” make her a problematic subject for feminists.

Grasso’s position is openly pro-feminist. The difficulty with a politically committed academic following a line of scholarship that has political ramifications is that the academic wants to advance a cause even if the evidence is ambiguous. Bearing this in mind, let us examine Grasso’s evidence, reasoning and conclusions.

“The feminism [O’Keeffe] embraced and practiced ennobled individualism, self-expressionism, and professional achievement as ultimate forms of liberty.” To the average person, this seems a positive good, yet this wilful individualism displays a distinct lack of the class solidarity which is necessary to effective feminist activism. While the ostensible goal of feminism is individual liberation, its nature demands commitment to group goals such as emotional solidarity, directed activism and conformity to shared principles. This is manifest in vehement denunciation of “choice feminism”. This is on the ostensible basis that individual choices of women – to work more or less, have children or not, adopt traditional standards of feminine dress or not and so forth – actually conceal the systematic nature of societal oppression and effectively act as a cover for the coercion of women. Thus choice feminism perpetuates the illusion that any woman is actually free to choose – or at least has equivalent freedom to that granted to men. In reality, one suspects that this ideological opposition to choice feminism is tactical. If women can opt in and out of feminism, express disagreement with feminist principles and enact independent discrimination in everyday life, feminism as a political movement – which relies on homogeneity and unity – becomes splintered.

Significantly, during the formative period of O’Keeffe’s adulthood (the 1900s and 1910s) she was in agreement with first-wave feminism which advocated for legal/electoral rights. It was this position she held throughout her life, that women should have the chance to act in whatever ways men acted and to choose what they did with such freedom. O’Keeffe was unequivocally a “choice feminist”. For today’s feminist, who views choice feminism as selfish individualism which perpetuates patriarchal structures, O’Keeffe’s views are incompatible with true feminism. (O’Keeffe’s responses to later feminism are discussed below.)

In Grasso’s very next sentence we encounter another plank of modern feminism. “Arguably, however, O’Keeffe’s art could have inspired women and men of all races, classes, politics, and statuses to imagine worlds not governed by industrial logic, stultifying labor, and multiple discriminations.” This is an example of intersectionality, the idea that we exist in multiple classes, often determined by demographic factors (such a sex, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability and so forth) and that these categorisations intersect in ways that frame our existences in multiple co-variant manners. The idea that art by a producer of certain demographic(s) will be understood best by other members of that demographic(s) has become pervasive in leftist cultural theory. Grasso tentatively asserts that although O’Keeffe’s art may have been the result of an attempt to liberate the white heterosexual affluent woman artist, it may have performed a political function for others.

Grasso gathers evidence from the artist’s early years, when she was an indirect supporter of women’s suffrage through her friendship with active campaigners, to show that O’Keeffe later omitted this sympathy from her late-career management of her public image. Grasso may be correct to suggest O’Keeffe wanted to distance herself from the cultural expressions of artists-as-women that had become common currency in the era of second-wave feminism in the fine arts, causing her to neglect to mention activities that could be seen as affiliated to feminism (albeit of an earlier generation). Grasso’s observations seem apposite but the evidence presented is very limited. O’Keeffe was a member of the National Woman’s Party and was a sponsor of the World Center for Women’s Archives.

Alfred Stieglitz’s role in refining her ideas and promoting O’Keeffe’s art is looked at in a gendered way. O’Keeffe’s acknowledgement of the encouragement, ideas and publicity that Stieglitz’s provided her professionally is seen as a comparative dismissal of Anita Pollitzer, a friend who supported her before she met Stieglitz. An objective assessment of the relative amount and nature of the help Pollitzer and Stieglitz provided the artist must favour the latter. To cast Pollitzer’s role in O’Keefe’s career as valuable but subordinate to Stieglitz’s – as O’Keeffe did – is not unreasonable nor is it evidence of systematic privileging of man’s power over woman’s friendship. Grasso is correct in suggesting that O’Keeffe was begrudging in overlooking her friend Pollitzer in retrospective accounts. The artist blocked Pollitzer’s biography of her and used that manuscript to source material for her subsequently published autobiography.

Generally, the artist refused association with societies and events relating women’s art.  She refused permission for feminist writers to use her art and declined interviews with them. She was dismissive of the idea of women artists being distinct and claimed that her career had never been impaired sexual discrimination. Certainly, in public she wished to be known as a painter, a modern artist and an American artist but not as a woman artist. O’Keeffe’s view was that to achieve equality, her accomplishments should not be limited as “female”. She had to have her art accepted as she wished it to be: genderless and hung among the art of men. Other female artists thought the same, considering separate art to be a way of avoiding competition with the best and accepting lower standards. Of course, to many feminists O’Keeffe’s denial of her sex was a concession to earn acclaim as a desexed artist in a male-dominated field.

The book summarises the lifetime articles written about O’Keeffe, with a focus on how her gender was discussed. Special attention is paid to the attitude of female journalists. Wealthy women, including Elizabeth Arden and Abby Rockefeller, were among the artist’s collectors. The collection of fan letters written to the artist (and preserved by her) is mined to examine what women of the time found to admire in O’Keeffe and her paintings. In old age, she was a national celebrity and an icon of a liberated woman.

Although much of the information is useful, and discussions about O’Keeffe’s actions are plausible, these rest on a foundation of contentious assumptions. The idea that society is a system of mechanisms developed to suppress opponent groups (rather than a complex evolving structure of traditions, systems, values and hierarchies that favours people with different qualities in varying ways that alter over time) seems to be a goal-orientated assessment directed by political allegiance.

These assumptions can be seen in instances of over-interpretation.

In 1970 the Whitney Museum of American Art did not practise “exclusion of white and black women artists in their annual exhibition”. Declining art submitted to an open-exhibition jury is not exclusion. When feminists targeted the museum by “conducting sit-ins, demonstrating outside the building holding placards and blowing whistles, and utilizing theatrical tactics such as planting uncooked eggs and sanitary napkins inside galleries,” is it any wonder that O’Keeffe wished to disassociate herself from such a movement? An artist who had conquered the art world through tenacity and talent and who had never benefited from – or had need of – quotas had nothing in common with these activists.

Grasso concludes that O’Keeffe systematically stripped her autobiography of all traces of feminist example and enablement in order to present her achievements as being personal ones. Grasso’s position echoes the slogan “You didn’t build this”. She suggests that O’Keeffe’s work could only have come about following the advances in education, emancipation and empowerment achieved by pioneering feminist and proto-feminist activists generally, as well as the help certain specific associates of the artist (including critics, journalists, teachers and artists) whom Grasso classes as feminists. Well, so be it. Should O’Keeffe have acknowledged the scientists, engineers, doctors, politicians, soldiers and educators who made her country safe, prosperous and free? Grasso’s criticism is – most pertinently – implied criticism of choice feminism and a deprecation of O’Keeffe’s apparent lack of gender solidarity.

Grasso concludes that O’Keeffe’s life, art and example enacted a form of feminist practice. In aspiring for equality, even though she eschewed identification as a woman artist, O’Keeffe was a feminist in Grasso’s view. However, the artist’s distancing of herself from her gender, makes her “incomplete” for many feminists. With all its ideological limitations, even neutral readers will find Equal Under the Sky a thought-provoking book full of useful research and new perspectives.

 

Linda M. Grasso, Equal under the Sky: Georgia O’Keeffe & Twentieth-Century Feminism, University of New Mexico Press, 2019, hardback, 336pp, mono illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 8263 5881 3 (other editions available)

 

© 2019 Alexander Adams

To view my art and books visit: www.alexanderadams.art

 

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Precisionism 

 

[Images: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]

The current exhibition Cult of the Machine (currently at de Young, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (24 March-8 September 2018); touring to Dallas Museum of Art (16 September 2018-6 January 2019)) examines American artists’ fascination with machinery. This review is from the exhibition catalogue.

Precisionism was a tendency in American art that arose after World War I and flourished until the early 1940s. The central figure in any discussion of Precisionism is Charles Sheeler (1883-1965). His scenes of industrial complexes, machinery and modern architecture are representative of Precisionist engagement with new forms, materials, processes and places in America. This exhibition includes many fine examples of art by Sheeler and the Precisionists and related material.

Precisionism was seen as one answer to the perennial problem that had dogged American art ever since the mid-Nineteenth Century: what was American art? To that question had been added a further complication: could art be both American and Modern? Many American traditionalists said no, as Modernism was a European invention that reflected the culture of Europe not America. Regionalism (views of rural locations painted in a realistic manner) and Precisionism (views of urban and industrial locations painted in a realistic, photographic or stylised manner) were contemporaneous attempts to define what American art could be. The former was viewed as traditionalist, rural and retrograde; the latter Modernist, urban and progressive. While there are inaccuracies in these summaries, they contain a fair degree of general truth. Precisionism’s legacy is most clearly seen in the Photorealism of the 1960s.

Characteristics of Precisionist art are: clarity of technique and subject; typical subjects being machinery, industrial artefacts, architecture, manufacturing and manufactured objects and the act of building and built structures; handling of materials in a neutral and impersonal manner, with smoothly painted surfaces downplaying the physical and tactile aspects of art; subdued colour;  a relative absence of figures; absence of overt social commentary; a dry approach, eschewing humour; a preference for the geometric, regular and unflawed; a balance of simplified realism and post-Cubist flatness of picture surface; extreme angles and close-ups are favoured; lack of flux or movement; and there is an emphasis on the microcosm and macrocosm, often drawing parallels between the extremes.

shot in studio master
shot in studio master

[Image: Paul Strand, “Wall Street, New York,” 1915. Platinum/palladium print, 9 5/8 x 12 5/8 in. (24.4 x 32.1 cm). Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Gift of Michael E. Hoffman, New York, in honor of Mr. Joseph Folberg for his generous support and commitment to photographers and photography, 1992.96.2. Photograph by Randy Dodson © Aperture Foundation, Inc, Paul Strand Archive Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

In contrast to the Ashcan School of John Sloane and the New York School – which provided candid social-realist views of everyday city life – Precisionism was detached in tone. The Ashcan painters presented dirty, discordant cities teeming with life and incident; the Precisionists viewed the same cities cleansed of the impurities of traffic, billboards, inclement weather and even people. One significant curatorial decision is to include rural subjects in this exhibition. Precisionism was largely urban and rural in its locales but agricultural buildings formed a reasonable proportion of the subjects chosen by Precisionists.

Precisionism was a tendency or trend rather than a movement and no formulation of stipulations or list members. The style had parallels in European art in Neue Sachlichkeit, Stanley Spencer, Tristram Hillier, et al. What goes unmentioned in the catalogue texts are posters and commercial art. Art Deco echoes Precisionism in the preference for simplification, impersonality, mechanical subjects, subdued colour and so forth. Art Deco is not discussed in the catalogue essays.

In addition to paintings, the exhibition includes a range of sculpture, prints, drawings, and photographs. The remainder of the 136 items in the show are examples of excellent and uncompromising design from the inter-war period: book-covers, furniture, a lamp, radio, even a 1937 Cord 812 Phaeton automobile.

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[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.]

Sheeler is not only the leading Precisionist, he is one of the most important figures in the history of early Modernist art in America. Paintings, photographs, prints and drawings show the artist’s competence in multiple mediums. His realism is a touch dry but is never pedantic. He knew enough to keep pictures free of fussiness and he simplified to the degree necessary.

Charles Sheeler_Classic Landscape_1931

[Image: Charles Sheeler, “Classic Landscape,” 1931. Oil on canvas, 25 x 32 1/4 in. (63.5 x 81.9 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth, 2000.39.2 Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

A colleague of Sheeler’s, Morton Livingston Schamberg (1881-1918), is identified by curators as a link between Dada and Precisionism. His machine paintings are freer than the art that came afterwards. Joseph Stella (1877-1946) is unusual in the degree of freedom and dynamism in his art. His views of the Brooklyn Bridge emphasise the swooping tension of the cables. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) painted views of New York City before her retreat to rural isolation and natural forms as subjects.

OKeeffe City Night 1926

[Image: Georgia O’Keeffe, “City Night,” 1926. Oil on canvas, 48 x 30 in. (121.0 x 76.2 cm). Minneapolis Institute of Art, Gift of funds from the Regis Corporation, Mr. and Mrs. W. John Driscoll, The Beim Foundation, the Larsen Fund, and by public subscription, 80.28. © 2017 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

This exhibition includes one of her night-time views of skyscrapers and the catalogue illustrates another, the famous Radiator Building – Night, New York (1927). Scenes of Pittsburgh’s ironworks and factories by Elsie Driggs (1898-1992) are included. They show buildings rather than the workers or the dramatic (even picturesque) smelting of iron. The paintings of Charles Demuth (1883-1935) are less naturalistic and feature the multiple lines and flat planes that one can find in Orphism and Cubism. The radically simplified bridge views of Ralston Crawford (1906-1978) are as concise as Art Deco posters.

Cunningham Fageol Ventilators 1934

[Image: Imogen Cunningham, “Fageol Ventilators,” 1934. Gelatin silver print, 7 1/8 x 9 in. (17.9 x 22.7 cm). Promised gift of Paul Sack to the Sack Photographic Trust of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art © 1934-2017 Imogen Cunningham Trust Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

Much of Precisionism relies on photography: it is either photography or derived from photographs. The exhibition contains photographs by Precisionists. Paul Strand is the best known of the Precisionist photographers and film makers. His documentary film Manhatta (1920) (made in collaboration with Sheeler) is a landmark of American cinema. Photographs in the exhibition include well-chosen examples by Margaret Bourke-White, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Jean Steichen, Ralph Steiner and a number of photographs taken by painters. Where the sources and paintings can be matched, both are included for purposes of comparison.

Gerald Murphy (1888-1964) is acclaimed as one of America’s great painters. The fact that he only painted between 1921 and 1929 is a painful loss to us. Only eight paintings by him survive. In terms of quality of production, Murphy’s art is as strong as Vermeer and Giorgione’s.

Gerald Murphy_Watch_1925

[Image: Gerald Murphy, “Watch,” 1925. Oil on canvas, 78 ½ x 78 1/2 in. (199.4 x 200.4 cm). Dallas Museum of Art, Foundation for the Arts Collection, Gift of the artist, 1963.75.FA. Photograph by Brad Flowers © Estate of Honoria Murphy Donnelly / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco]

The exhibited Watch (1925) is one of the masterpieces of Modern art. Its restrained colour, flat facets, accuracy and exquisite finish make it stylistically closer to Post-Cubism than Precisionism but the spirit of the art is pure Precisionism. Analysis by horologists suggests that while the depiction of the workings of the watch is accurate, the main spring appears defective. It may be that this poignant impairment was deliberately introduced by the artist, who had a lifelong struggle with his homosexuality, and may have wished to use symbolism of dysfunction.

The find of the exhibition is George Copeland Ault (1891-1948). Technically, his paintings conform to most aspects of Precisionism in approach and subject; where they differ is tone and implication. His architectural views are imbued with more atmosphere than those by other Precisionists. The views of unpeopled scenes in snow, mist and at night have a degree of melancholy and ambivalence absent from other Precisionist art. His Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946) is similar in clarity, calm and peculiar intensity to Magritte’s Domain of Light. Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944) has something akin to bleak orderliness, the white snow blanket a dull antiseptic white under a murky sky. His best paintings have a meditative quality missing from more typical examples of Precisionism. It is not great art but it is powerfully compelling – all the more so because it exerts its hold in an inexplicable manner.

2018_DEY_COTM_Install

[Image: Installation view of “Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art”. Image courtesy of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Far left: George Copeland Ault, Daylight at Russell’s Corners (1944), far right: George Copeland Ault, Bright Light at Russell’s Corners (1946)]

Judging on this evidence, political critiques of Precisionism seem misplaced. A better approach is the psychological reading. The primary drive behind Precisionism is psychological not political. The paintings – with their dearth of human figures, signalling of the supremacy of artifice over nature and absence of entropy – indicate their creators’ misanthropy and discomfort with disorder. Precisionist art speaks of perfectionism, attempts to impose control over external chaos and hypersensitivity towards disruption. It is a pathological response akin to phobia of germs or insecurity in the face of change. Precisionism is the art of those averse to imprecision; it speaks of fear of decay and worry about ambiguity and doubt. Sheeler’s stated aspiration of achieving “purity of plastic expression [through] objective forms” is indicative of deep attachment to certitude and impersonality. Any reading of Precisionism which does not include discussion of the psychological drive of its artists is incomplete.

Catalogue essays by experts discuss various aspects of the style, complemented by full-page illustrations, a chronology and notes. The book itself is excellent and handsome. The use of silver chimes with the metallic subjects of the art. The only aspect which could have been improved is to have increased the inner margin between text and page gutter on verso pages, which gets uncomfortably close while never impairing legibility. Personally, I would have chosen a serif typeface in preference to this sans serif. Sans serif is tiring on the eye over extended passages of reading. Cult of the Machine is a wide-ranging, balanced and at time surprising survey of one of the key American art movements.

 

Emma Acker, et al, Cult of the Machine: Precisionism and American Art, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco in association with Yale University Press, April 2018, cloth hardback, 244pp, 150 col. illus., $65, ISBN 978 0 300 234 022

© 2018 Alexander Adams