O’Keeffe and the Flower Equation

The NCMA’s suprising exhibition The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Art is arranged by subject and includes a section devoted, simply, to flowers. But public reception of O’Keeffe’s famous flowers was hardly simple: “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings,” O’Keeffe said, “they’re really talking about their own affairs.” Throughout her life the artist strongly resisted the popular but pat, sexual interpretations of her flowers as representing intimate contours of the female anatomy.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Petunias, 1925, oil on hardboard, 18 x 30 in., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, gift of the M. H. de Young family, 1990.55; © 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

In several interviews she insisted she wanted her effusive, imposing paintings of flowers to stop busy urbanites in their tracks and force them to see the beauty in the natural world, close up, so they couldn’t escape it. She felt compelled to abstract elements of nature to better understand life.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932, oil on canvas, 48 x 40 in., Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas, 2014.35; © 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; Photograph: Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art/Edward C. Robinson III

“Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.

—Georgia O’Keeffe

Loie Hollowell, Yellow Mountains, 2016, oil, acrylic medium, and sawdust on linen over panel, H. 48 x W. 36 in. x D. 3 in., Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery; Photograph: Feuer Mesler Gallery

Loie Hollowell, a contemporary American artist featured in The Beyond, says that she is inspired by O’Keeffe’s “deep formal and spiritual investigation.” Hollowell confesses, nonetheless, to embracing the connection she sees between the arcs, curves, and crevices in nature and those in the female form. Some have called Hollowell’s work “body landscapes,” as she starts by abstracting elements of her own body. Though nonfigural, her work is sensual, very intimate. “I want the viewer to not have to deal with that content if they don’t want to,” says Hollowell. “These are about painting concerns … but the impetus is from something very personal. It still comes from my body.

Hollowell’s work has been described, in part, as sharing O’Keeffe’s alleged interest in abstracting female genitalia. So, from O’Keeffe’s point of view, the misinterpretation lives on. Perhaps this is one of the more interesting things about artistic influence—it’s always beyond a legend’s control.

More unexpected, eye-opening juxtapostions await visitors in the galleries of The Beyond, open through January 20, 2019.

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