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Few artists in this country have achieved the kind of fame that Georgia O'Keeffe has. Her life and work are, without exaggeration, the stuff of legend. But there's been a downside to O'Keeffe's celebrity. Some of her most famous paintings have become trivialized through excessive reproduction, especially in the form...
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Few artists in this country have achieved the kind of fame that Georgia O'Keeffe has. Her life and work are, without exaggeration, the stuff of legend.

But there's been a downside to O'Keeffe's celebrity. Some of her most famous paintings have become trivialized through excessive reproduction, especially in the form of that ubiquitous icon of many first apartments, the Santa Fe Opera poster. Is there anyone who isn't familiar with O'Keeffe's gargantuan flowers or her pastel cows' skulls?

It's a different, less well-known O'Keeffe that emerges in Georgia O'Keeffe: Canyon Suite, the magnificent traveling exhibition from Kansas City's Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Design currently on display at the Denver Art Museum.

The exhibit consists of 28 essentially abstract watercolors that O'Keeffe painted between 1916 and 1918 in Canyon, Texas, where she was employed as an art instructor at West Texas State Normal College (later Texas A&M). And like so many other things in O'Keeffe's life, the story of this group of paintings takes on the quality of myth. The remarkable body of work remained hidden for most of this century, rediscovered only when the granddaughter of O'Keeffe student and paramour Ted Reid found them in 1988, two years after O'Keeffe's death at age 99. Reid had apparently secreted the watercolors, which were wrapped in brown paper (explaining their well-preserved state), in his garage for all those decades.

This early period of O'Keeffe's work was not entirely unknown before the new cache was uncovered. Nonetheless, certain revelations result from the paintings' re-emergence as a group. Foremost among these is the way this radical and courageous work demonstrates that O'Keeffe, in spite of the fact that she lived in the wilds of Texas, was already totally immersed in the most advanced avant-garde art circles then active in New York. In fact, in 1917, when O'Keeffe was still painting the Canyon Suite, she was given her first one-artist exhibition, a show of related charcoals and watercolors at New York's original contemporary art gallery, Alfred Stieglitz's "291."

Stieglitz, who would later marry O'Keeffe, was instrumental in creating her image, which, cashing in on the feminism of the suffragette movement as well as the sexism of the then newly emerging field of psychology, suggested that her work reflected the raw and unfettered sexuality of a simple farm girl from out west. Of course, this apocryphal characterization ignored the key factors that led O'Keeffe to the "291" in the first place.

The product of a series of Catholic boarding schools, O'Keeffe came to New York in 1907--a decade before her brief stint as an art instructor in Texas--to continue her art training at the Art Students League, where she fell under the influence of post-impressionist heavyweight William Merritt Chase. Before arriving in New York, O'Keeffe had studied at the prestigious Chicago Art Institute, then a center for modern art associated with the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements.

So the Canyon Suite was not a result of O'Keeffe's fresh outsider perspective, as the Stieglitz legend would have it, but rather of her exposure to the cutting edge of the American art world.

The "291" championed the vanguard art of Europe and the Americans who were inspired by it. And in the paintings stashed away by Reid, O'Keeffe reveals her internalization of the lessons of the European abstract revolution, choosing, with a few exceptions, the West Texas landscape as her vehicle. The essentially horizontal terrain of the sky-dominated prairie is converted by O'Keeffe into a simple arrangement of organic color fields. In some paintings, the viewer can still make out the details; in most, though, actual landscape features have been left behind.

In the dark yet lyrical watercolor "Canyon Landscape," the influence of the French Modern Masters, in particular Cezanne, is obvious--the view has been conceived as a series of flattened spaces that diminish the sense of depth but still safely recall the great outdoors. In "Purple Mountains," though still acknowledging an awareness of European modernism, O'Keeffe begins to come closer to her own vision. The flattening has been pushed further, and the water pigments stain the paper in broad stripes. A delicious purple-blue sky floats over brown and green swatches that represent the mountains.

But the most important paintings here, and the most interesting, are those in which the only regard O'Keeffe displays for the landscape is found in the titles. The pure gestural abstraction evident in O'Keeffe's handling of color and her reliance on the naturally occurring effects of the watercolor medium--blotting, staining, puckering--anticipates the abstract expressionism that later dominated world art.

It's hard to believe, for instance, that "Sunset" (which could be a Mark Rothko if one didn't know better) was already forty years old when work with a similar look was all the rage in the most progressive circles of American art. O'Keeffe has reduced the scene to a luminous central color field that goes from a deep red-orange at the bottom to a glowing yellow at the top. This central area is enveloped by dark grays and purples. Our only touchstones with external reality are the sinuous lines that O'Keeffe created by leaving narrow strips of the paper bare, a treatment that suggests the land.

Even more radical is "Evening," a work that makes no reference at all to the landscape but instead records the movement of O'Keeffe's paintbrush, which she used in an attempt to capture a state of mind. The same kind of reliance on the physical act of painting itself is seen in the incredible "Grey Abstraction (Train in the Desert)," which comprises interlocking arching smears that look like finger painting.

In addition to these remarkable watercolors, DAM has assembled its own collection of O'Keeffes--mostly oil paintings--and put them on display on the sixth floor. Also on view is a display of photographs entitled "The Permanent Presence" that includes portraits of O'Keeffe by the likes of Ansel Adams and Yousuf Karsh.

That O'Keeffe was not just an artist but a subject for artists is the topic of the perfect chaser for all of this museum mania: a photo exhibition around the corner at Camera Obscura Gallery. O'Keeffe at Abiquiu brings together a series of black-and-white photographs of O'Keeffe and her New Mexico environs taken in 1980 by one of the greatest photographers to have worked in Colorado, Myron Wood. Now confined to a wheelchair since a series of strokes forced his retirement, Wood saw the spirit of O'Keeffe in everything he shot, from the doors held shut by sticks to the rocks she had laid everywhere.

Together with the Canyon Suite at the DAM, the impressive O'Keeffe at Abiquiu serves only to bolster the O'Keeffe myth--and to leave Georgia on your mind.

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