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Out of the Erotic Ghetto

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From left: Red, Yellow and Black Streak (1924); Sky Above Clouds III/Above the Clouds III (1963); Series I—No.3 (1918).  

There are naughty bits. But when compared with the work of her closest stylistic contemporary and influence Arthur Dove, it is Dove, not O’Keeffe, who comes off as being “about sex.” Dove plays the brooding, physical Walt Whitman of Leaves of Grass to O’Keeffe’s intricate Emily Dickinson. Dove’s touch has sensual weight, animalistic body, and shadowy intensity. O’Keeffe’s art is Spartan, Apollonian, and cerebral—structured, layered, and faceted like abstract sonnets.

In the first two knockout rooms of the Whitney’s show, Haskell gives us O’Keeffe’s early works on paper and her uncanny ability to conjure indivisible abstract wholes in which all parts are of equal interest and never decorative—something Donald Judd made good on decades later. Aside from one darkened gallery of Stieglitz’s super-seductive pictures of her (who knew underarm hair could be so titillating?), from the third gallery on, you’re lowered into O’Keeffe’s lapidarian vision, glowing prismatic color, and luscious thin surfaces. She never overworks anything; the relationship of her interior forms to external edges feels found yet pure as Pythagorean geometry.

“The men,” as she witheringly referred to male contemporaries, tended to paint dark color with gritty surfaces and romantic symbolism. At the Whitney, you see O’Keeffe coaxing brilliant hues onto smooth grounds via colossally magnified, closely cropped, disembodied shapes. At the same time, she’s assimilated Stieglitz’s (and Paul Strand’s) ideas of photography into painting. All these things made her, in her own words, “an outsider.” O’Keeffe’s purer color and form, her surreal scale shifts, were as radical for her time as Warhol’s Day-Glo color and pop-culture references were for his. Like Warhol, she was willing to forsake high-minded ideas of what constituted “serious art,” and risk being branded with the worst insults the art world could muster: girly, swishy, pretty. O’Keeffe wasn’t afraid of those labels. And as the Whitney show demonstrates, her fearless prettiness is also profound and lyrical—an eerie, ineffable joy. Fuck sex.


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