My “Eye On Art” column appears monthly in the Sag Harbor Express
Fashioning Georgia O’Keeffe
In 1927, the Brooklyn Museum gave Georgia O’Keeffe her first solo museum exhibition. Ninety years later, she is again the subject of a solo show there: “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” on view through July 23. This time, however, the focus is as much on O’Keeffe the person as on O’Keeffe the painter, using her clothing and personal effects as revealing clues to the woman behind the art.
In addition to her paintings, sculpture and works on paper, as well as copious photographic documentation, the show includes numerous examples of her garments and accessories from the collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, which owns the artist’s two New Mexico homes, in Abiquiu and on the Ghost Ranch, where her possessions have remained intact since her death in 1986.
Dubbed “the best known woman painter in America” by Life magazine in 1938, O’Keeffe was then, and remains, a figure of individual as well as aesthetic fascination. Indeed, her self-constructed image—immortalized in black and white photographs by luminaries like Ansel Adams, Carl Van Vechten, Edward Weston, Cecil Beaton, and most famously her husband, Alfred Stieglitz—is an essential part of the package. Her sensuality comes across in Stieglitz’s intimate nudes, but with her clothes on she’s austere and aloof, projecting an uncompromising character that’s also strongly reflected in her wardrobe.
Two of the show’s earliest works are portraits of O’Keeffe in her early twenties, and in both she’s wearing black and white. This pared-down palette was her lifelong preference, though there are some notable variations, especially in her later years. Early on she sewed many of her own clothes, fashioning a look that was simple yet elegant. A group of four eggshell silk dresses from the 1920s and ’30s illustrates her skillful needlework and fondness for understated detailing. These garments are paired with paintings of the period. She and Stieglitz were living in New York and vacationing upstate, a locale that yielded some colorful canvases, but several others echo the monochromatic severity of her dresses and the black cloak, borrowed from Stieglitz, that she often wore.
After moving permanently to New Mexico in 1949, O’Keeffe favored store-bought work clothes for her rambles around the countryside in search of the scenery and found objects that became her primary subject matter. Her battered black Stetson, a pair of Levi’s, a denim apron, shirts, sneakers and a selection of bandanas are here, as is a beautiful squash blossom necklace she admired but seldom wore, preferring to hang it on the wall like a work of wearable sculpture. Her preferred accessories were a silver-studded black suede belt, visible in several photographs of her, and a brass brooch, custom made in the shape of her OK initials by Alexander Calder. She had custom-made clothing as well, by designers such as Knize, Emsley and Claire McCardell, with shoes by Ferragamo. The influence of Asian aesthetics is evident in several kimonos, also custom made for her from material she brought back from her travels.
O’Keeffe’s position as an independent woman who forged a distinctive persona, as well as the creator of a popular and highly prized body of work, was firmly established by 1977, when Perry Miller Adato made an award-winning film about her, and 1980, when Andy Warhol painted her portrait. Near the end of her long life—she lived to be 98—she was a truly iconic figure among American artists and an avatar for the burgeoning second wave of feminism. Already in her thirties by the time the 19th Amendment was ratified, she was old enough to remember the first wave.
The Brooklyn Museum’s tribute, organized by guest curator Wanda Corn, is part of a year-long celebration of the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. I wonder whether O’Keeffe would have approved of being grouped with feminists, or even considered a role model for them. She embodied the solitary genius—an indomitable spirit, fascinating in her remoteness—and played that role to the hilt, while acknowledging that it was Stieglitz who orchestrated her initial success. But once she was launched she capitalized on her early recognition, cultivated a carefully managed public image, and used the power of photography to put it across. Unlike any previous O’Keeffe exhibition, this one makes that persona come alive.
Forty years ago, an exhibition titled “Tenth Street Days” revisited the cooperative galleries that flourished downtown during the 1950s and ‘60s, when so-called emerging artists were seeking alternatives to the uptown commercial gallery system. In 1977 that era was still fresh in the memories of those who had participated in the co-ops, Happenings and other phenomena that defined the scene. Since then lots of them have died, and the period has acquired an art-historical patina that is lovingly burnished in “Inventing Downtown,” on view through April 1 at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery on Washington Square, in the heart of the district in question. While the previous show was limited to co-op galleries and to paintings and sculpture, this one takes a wider view, including artist-run spaces that weren’t co-ops, as well as other media, such as installations, performances, photography and film.
Like the earlier Abstract Expressionists with lofts and hangouts on and around Tenth Street, those who came up in their wake sought safety in numbers. Also like their forebears, many of them gravitated to the Hamptons as a summer retreat. Wandering through the jam-packed NYU galleries, I was struck by the number of locals I recognized, among them John Chamberlain, Jim Dine, Dan Flavin, Perle Fine, Lester Johnson, Bill King, Fay Lansner, James Rosenquist, Stan Van Der Beek and Jane Wilson. Others whose work I was hoping to see—Anneli Arms, Alice Baber, Elaine de Kooning, Berenice D’Vorzon, Matsumi Kanemitsu, Athos Zacharias and Wilfrid Zogbaum—are not included, unless I missed them amidst the wealth of fascinating material, both artistic and documentary, that’s on display.
At the show’s heart are the Tanager, Hansa and Brata galleries, three of the co-ops that sprang up in the neighborhood’s cheap commercial rentals. Dues-paying members shared the expenses and the labor of putting on shows of their own work and that of invited guests. It was a fractious task, but out of the turmoil stars emerged, including Mark di Suvero, Yayoi Kusama, Philip Pearlstein, Allan Kaprow, George Segal, Alex Katz and several of the folks named above. Another co-op, the Phoenix, was co-founded by Red Grooms, who later opened his own loft as the City Gallery. Kaprow’s first Happening was at the Reuben Gallery, which he co-founded and where Grooms, Oldenburg, and Dine also performed. Found-object art and assemblage flourished in this atmosphere. Props for Happenings and installations were often scavenged from the street.
A hallmark of the current show is the diversity of styles and media that proliferated in the artist-run spaces, whether co-op, rented or borrowed. Judson Gallery, in Judson Memorial Church, was an especially fruitful venue for performance and installation art, including Oldenburg’s “The Street” (which later migrated to Reuben) and Dine’s “The House.” Judson’s “Hall of Issues,” organized by Phyllis Yampolsky, was an ongoing open call for material that attracted artists and non-artists alike. Such free-flowing engagement encouraged direct participation in which poets, musicians and dancers interacted with visual artists in a lively atmosphere of give and take. Among the notable genre-benders were Yoko Ono, who combined visual, conceptual, and performance art, and Robert Rauschenberg, a co-founder of Experiments in Art and Technology.
The exhibition also highlights the Spiral Group, a short-lived collective of African-American artists that coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. The group, which mounted only a single exhibition, in 1965, included such luminaries as Romare Bearden, Norman Lewis, and Hale Woodruff, who taught at NYU. Spiral’s brief history illuminates the larger debate about how art can respond to social and political issues without becoming propaganda.
Many Tenth Street alumni graduated to uptown galleries, and a couple of the co-ops actually moved uptown. The Green Gallery on West 57th Street evolved from Hansa—which had relocated to Central Park South before closing in 1959—and showed several of the downtown contingent, ranging from proto-Pop artists to abstract painters and minimalist sculptors. And moving up by no means meant selling out. Indeed, one of the goals of the downtown artist-run galleries and alternative spaces was simply to get the work seen and noticed, in the hope that it would be picked up by mainstream art dealers. Judging by the roster represented in “Inventing Downtown,” that was a strategy for success.
Pierre Chareau’s Legacy Explored
In Most Holy Trinity Cemetery on Cedar Street in East Hampton, a modest granite stone marks the grave of Pierre Chareau. How this became the final resting place of one of France’s premier Art Deco and Moderne designers is part of the story told in “Pierre Chareau: Modern Architecture and Design,” an innovative and revealing exhibition at the Jewish Museum in Manhattan through March 26.
Best known for a building in Paris called the Maison de Verre—House of Glass, which predates by two decades Philip Johnson’s much more widely known and accessible Glass House in New Canaan, Connecticut—Chareau came to the United States in 1940. Although he was raised Roman Catholic, his family was Jewish on his mother’s side and his wife, Louise Dorothée Dyte (1880-1967), known as Dollie, was Jewish. Fleeing Nazi persecution, they settled in New York, where Dollie taught French and Pierre tried unsuccessfully to re-establish his professional career, which had been primarily as a designer of furnishings and interiors. That line of work had already been curtailed by the Great Depression, when the market for sumptuous décor using exotic and costly materials had pretty much dried up.
Fortunately, in 1945 he was befriended by the artist Robert Motherwell, who commissioned him to design a house and studio in Georgica, using war-surplus Quonset huts. In lieu of a fee, Chareau built a small house for himself and his wife on the Motherwell property, and it was there that he had his fatal stroke. Hence his burial far from Paris, the city where his reputation was made and where his only surviving residence, the Maison de Verre, built between 1928-32, is still intact in private ownership. (After changing hands a couple of times, the Motherwell house was demolished in 1985.)
In addition to documentary evidence like plans, sketches, and photographs, Chareau’s legacy includes the handsome high-end furniture he designed for wealthy patrons in pre-World War II Europe, and works from the collection of modern art that he and Dollie assembled when they were members of the Parisian intelligentsia. The exhibition features a partial reassembly of that collection—including works by Picasso, Léger, and Mondrian—most of which was sold to support the couple during their expatriate years.
There are also examples of the furniture, among them a clever nesting telephone table; the “La Religieuse” lamp, named for its pointed glass shade that resembles a French nun’s headdress; and a “canapé a confident” sofa, originally designed for a 1923 film set and later prominently featured in the Maison de Verre’s interior décor. Many of these items were scattered during the war, when the possessions of Chareau’s Jewish clients were sold or confiscated.
Individual pieces of furniture can appear sterile when isolated and displayed out of their original settings, so the exhibition designers have used ingenious techniques to bring the material to life. Back-projected silhouettes show people sitting in chairs, working at desks and moving about in rooms, suggesting how real folks would interact with the furniture. But even more intriguing is the use of virtual reality to place some of the pieces in their former surroundings. In the central gallery, four stations offer head sets through which to view the furniture in situ, including the interior and garden of the Maison de Verre. In an adjoining room, a digital walk-through of the house affords viewers admission to a building that is hidden away from public access. This high-tech experience seems to me an especially fitting way to interpret a structure that itself is a marvel of modern engineering and gadgetry.
Lovingly restored by the current owner, Robert Rubin, an American businessman, the house was commissioned by Dr. Jean Dalsace, a gynecologist, who had his office on the ground floor. Shoehorned under an existing 19th century building, its front and back façades are made entirely of glass bricks that maximize the available natural light while maintaining the occupants’ privacy. One wall is punctuated by heavy louvered windows that open easily using a geared mechanism. With its steel structure exposed both inside and out, its frank exploitation of industrial materials, and its custom-made furniture and fixtures, Maison de Verre is one of the most iconic buildings few people have ever seen in person. This exhibition is as close as most of us will come to actually being there.
Beckmann in New York
On December 27, 1950, a man collapsed and died during a walk from his West Side apartment to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The man was Max Beckmann, one of Germany’s foremost 20th century artists, and his destination was the exhibition, “American Painting Today,” which included his “Self-Portrait in Blue Jacket.” That painting is the centerpiece of “Max Beckmann in New York,” a stunning show of paintings he made there, supplemented by other works from New York collections, on view at the Met through February 20.
The multiple ironies in this undertaking probably would have amused Beckmann, a champion cynic and master of gallows humor. For one, he was out of place in the show he never got to see. He was not American, nor was his brand of painting in the forefront of contemporary art at the time. Having survived persecution and exile during the Nazi regime, which labeled his art degenerate and confiscated it from German museums, he died of a heart attack in a city where he was perfectly safe and where his art was prized by important collectors. And this tribute, which opened 66 years after his death at age 66, includes a painting that was foolishly deaccessioned by the Met.
Beckmann moved to New York City in 1949 and spent only 15 months there, but many of his paintings had preceded him. The Museum of Modern Art already owned his major triptych, “The Voyage,” which puzzled me as a youngster and continues to fascinate. Dealers J.B. Neumann and Curt Valentin were placing his pictures in prestigious private collections. He was teaching at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and, inspired by a milieu he found as stimulating as prewar Berlin, painting up a storm. But he was not seduced by New York’s glitz and glamor. True to his nature, he also saw the darkness, both in those around him and in himself.
We are introduced to Beckmann by a group of seven self-portraits, including the blue-jacket one, inscribed “NY 50,” which proved to be one of his last works. Leaning on an armchair, puffing the ubiquitous cigarette, a brilliant orange shirt peeking out from underneath his cobalt coat, the artist appears introspective, as if mulling over ideas for a new painting, or perhaps deciding where his urban rambles would take him next. He was his own favorite subject, and this gallery shows us some of the many personae—one might say disguises—he assumed. His costumes range from conservative to theatrical, formal to casual, including a tiger-striped outfit for himself as a bugler in 1938, sounding a warning against Fascism’s rising tide.
Unlike some other German exponents of New Objectivity, Beckmann’s social and political critiques are metaphorical rather than literal, more general than topical, using familiar visual landmarks and personal symbolism to comment on the human condition. Recurring images include lighted candles, often with phallic overtones, that can mean both revealing light and burning pain; ladder-like shapes that may represent escape routes or confining bars; bound and mutilated figures, sometimes inverted, implying a world turned upside down by cruelty and oppression. His characters are not caricatures, like those of Grosz or Dix, but are often actors in tragicomic settings, wearing their costumes and makeup and playing roles in public or domestic dramas.
This is complicated art, requiring some decoding in order to appreciate its deeper meanings. In “Bird’s Hell,” 1938, for example, a crowd of feathered monsters flashes the Nazi salute as one of them carves up a human victim. The blue demon that pops out of an egg is a symbol of the warped ideology hatched by Hitler’s megalomania. “The Town (City Night),” 1950, features a cast of grotesques attending a human sacrifice replete with sexual symbolism, while a monkey in a messenger’s cap holds the artist’s calling card. I’m here, he says, and I’m watching this travesty of a party—but strike up the band, and bring on the dancing girls! It’s a reminder that, even in New York, a city he loved, Beckmann sensed human folly behind the civilized façade.
On a personal level, Beckmann’s brief sojourn in the city had lasting significance for me. Apart from the magnificent legacy of his art, he left money to the Brooklyn Museum Art School to establish a scholarship in his name. I received one, and at the same time so did the handsome young man from England who became my husband. I think Beckmann would have been pleased to learn how that turned out.