I went to go see the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition last Friday night. I was hoping to have gone with someone but, as it turns out, I’m really glad that I went on my own. It was great to be alone, standing amongst a small crowd, with the pieces on display.
Other than knowing that it exists and that I tend to like it, I have little knowledge about art. While standing in front of the works, I took the time to read the write-ups on the wall, stared at a piece for as long as it held my attention, and made remarks under my breath about what I thought.
Early in the exhibition – about six pieces in – I spoke one sentence to a woman who was looking at the same piece that I was. It was overlooked, as though it wasn’t heard, and I didn’t say anything to anyone after that.
Staring at the pieces, I was almost awestruck by the use of colour. The lines that gave shape to the paintings were almost delicately holding in the gradients of soft, blurred, dark, vibrant, and sharp colours that filled the canvases. My eyes would trace the lines through the paintings and they would drift along with the colours. Almost mesmerized, I was arrested by the strength of soft beauty.
When I went to see the J.M.W. Turner exhibition, I was immediately attracted to the art. His work struck me in a way that I hadn’t been before. O’Keeffe achieved the same.
I went in thinking that I was going to see paintings of flowers that look like vaginas. I was expecting to be recalling feminist theory and searching for allusions of vaginal hubris. While there was a photo of her pubis on display, none of that happened. Indeed, it was made clear that she never wanted a sexualized interpretation of her work. It was her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, who is responsible for that image.
His work, for its part, was pretty good, as well. He was a forerunner, of sorts, for the photography world, pushing to make it an accepted form in the art world. The photographs he took of O’Keeffe that were on display painted her in a new light, they gave her a face and a sense of place. They were taken as part of their private collection.
For me, what O’Keeffe did with her work was give form to objects through abstraction. (That sounds like an incredibly up-nosed, meaningless remark about art, I know.) Looking at her paintings, I started to think that she saw the world in a way that is deeper than I could ever. I’d never look at a flower and consider what it would look like as a series of colours seamlessly blending together. I’d never think to paint the same door on a mud building repeatedly until I got it right. I never look at the world in that way.
My colour vision is fine, but the world doesn’t present itself in abstractions. For me, every object has a defined purpose. The beauty of life lies in the realization of an object’s prescribed potential.
O’Keeffe makes me question my stance. She makes me wonder about how delicately the world has been shaped and what, in fact, gives it form.
I should probably have gone with someone who would’ve listened to me.