April 26, 2017

"Georgia O'Keeffe" @ The Brooklyn Museum

The paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe are as familiar to the American audience as portraits of George Washington or Norman Rockwell magazine covers.  Indeed her flower paintings and her cow skulls have come to symbolize the Southwestern United States in all its Modernist splendor and reinforced her stature as an icon of Feminism.  But what most people don't know, is how carefully she crafted her public persona and how closely her life imitated her art, or vise verse.

On view now at the Brooklyn Museum is the special exhibition "Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern", a rather intimate look at the woman behind the celebrity. Tracing O'Keeffe's history from her childhood on a Wisconsin farm, through her early teaching years in Virginia and Texas and her beginning success as an artist to her ultimate renown as the doyenne of Modernism, the curators present an interesting perspective on who, exactly, was Georgia O'Keeffe.

By positioning O'Keeffe as an advocate of the Arts and Crafts philosophy of beauty being the sum of harmonious and visually pleasing pieces, the exhibition shows her to be a master of creating her own, unique personal and professional aura.  Fascinated with the power of clothing since her youth, O'Keeffe used her wardrobe not only as an expression of style but to establish herself as an independent woman and as an artist.  Examples of fashion illustration done when she was still in her teens show an accomplished drafts person and someone who already knew how to profit from her artistic talents.

"Woman with Blue Hat", c.1916-17
Watercolor and gouache

The first galleries are centered around groups of clothing probably made and certainly worn by O'Keeffe as a young woman in the 1920s.  These cream-colored tunic-style dresses are stunningly simple but feature exquisite details such as pin tucks and bows.

The black overcoats are more severe and dramatic but also show an eye for design.

The black and white palate was perfect for being photographed by the many artists who endeavored to capture her image on film, most famously her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, whose portrayals epitomize her elegance and style.

After Stieglitz's death in 1946, O'Keeffe was free to spend more time in New Mexico.  Her wardrobe reflected the move with the colors she saw, and painted, in the new landscape.  While black and white remained predominant, especially for photographs, there were occasional glimpses of blue (like the sky) and sometimes even red (like the mountains).

 "Hills - Lavender,  Ghost Ranch, New Mexico II", 1935

Especially interesting was the way that her clothing and paintings were intertwined.  Like the scalloped edge on this "Varjo" dress by Marimekko, circa 1963...

and the frame on this painting.

"Ram's Head, White Hollyhock-Hills", 1935
With sheet metal frame by George Ot

Or the deep "V" of this "Chute" dress by Emilio Pucci, circa 1954...

reflected in both Polaroid photographs taken by O'Keeffe on a river rafting trip in Glen Canyon in 1964...

 and painted in this abstraction of the view from her patio in Abiquiu, New Mexico...

Georgia O'Keeffe led a long and full life and carefully preserved her image right up until the end.  When she died in 1986, O'Keeffe still owned nearly a dozen bespoke black suits made for her by tailors in New York and Hong Kong and worn when traveling to cities or entertaining guests in New Mexico.  This highly curated wardrobe was of great importance in the identity Georgia O'Keeffe showed the world and helped solidify her iconic status among American artists which endures to this day.

April 09, 2017

Segers and Seurat at The Met

Print enthusiasts have a lot to be happy about this spring with the magnificent exhibition "The Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers" now on view at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.  While Hercules Segers (1590-1638) may not be a household name even among specialists in the field, he was greatly admired by none other than Rembrandt (who owned a number of Segers's works in his own collection) and is considered one of the most experimental and original practitioners of the craft.

Hercules Segers, "Still Life with Books", c. 1618-22
Counterproof (?) of a line etching printed in
blue-green on cotton with a cream colored ground

Segers was an anomaly in several respects.  A member of the artists' guild in Haarlem, Segers worked there and later in Amsterdam as a print maker, painter and also an art dealer.  He was one of the first artists to depict a still life in European graphic art (see above) and he is credited with developing the technique of "sugar-biting", now known as aquatint in print making.  Probably most importantly was Segers's unique approach to print making as another form of painting rather than as a means of producing a number of identical images.  To this end, he experimented with papers, cloths, and methods, sometimes etching several plates for a single image, so that, though similar, no two pieces were exactly alike.  For example, take a look at these five variations of "Valley with a River and a Town with Four Towers" done circa 1626-27.  Each is basically the same composition but due to differences in the support (cloth or paper), ground color (grey-green, yellow-grey, cream, brown-grey), printing ink (blue, black, dark green) and hand-applied enhancements, each is a unique piece.

While Hercules Segers's name may be doomed to obscurity, his influence on the history of graphic art is profound and this exhibition is a well deserved homage to this important artist.

On a more popular note is the concurrent exhibition "Seurat's Circus Sideshow" centered around The Met's marvelous painting of the same name "Circus Sideshow (Parade de cirque)" by pointillist painter Georges Seurat (1859-1891).

Many 19th and 20th century artists were captivated by the circus and explored the spectacle's sociological narrative with a mixture of fascination and revulsion.  Seurat's look specifically at the sideshow, the lead-in to the main event, exhibits the same intrigue but with the added anticipation factor - the promise of what is to come.

Seurat was not alone in this obsession with the tease, and this exhibition presents, in a circular gallery setting (much like the ring at the circus), a selection of works on the theme by himself and his contemporaries.  Like the circus and its patrons, the pieces on display range from publicity posters to oil paintings, spanning the spectrum from common to highbrow.

Colorful publicity posters invite us to enter the magical world behind the curtain like this 1897 lithograph by Georges Redon...

A more sinister view is this etching by Marcel Roux taken from "Danse Macabre", 1905, entitled "The Fair:  Those Death Takes by Surprise"...

Seurat's genius with conté crayon on paper is revealed in these precursor to "Circus Sideshow" depicting two clowns in "Sidewalk Show (Une Parade)",  1883-84...
A rather brutal glimpse into the life of a sideshow performer is seen here in Gabriel Boutet's 1885 oil painting "The Fair at Montrouge"...

While Pierre Bonnard offers a more humorous vision as this clown seems to tiptoe off the stage in "Fairground Sideshow (Parade)", an oil on cardboard done in 1892...

Though Seurat's "Circus Sideshow" is a study in elegance and stillness, it was perhaps not the most accurate description of the world of the parade.  Here, in the massive mural "Grimaces and Misery - The Saltimbanques" by Fernand Pelez, we see a more realistic depiction of life as an itinerant entertainer.

Despite the dark undercurrents, the color and excitement of the circus and its sideshow have an enduring appeal - maybe not to artists but to the general public who are flocking to this exhibition like it's the "greatest show on earth"!