Two of last century’s revered artists are having major shows in New York at the same moment: Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) at the Whitney, and Vasily Kandinsky (1866-1944) at the Guggenheim. The coincidence of the two exhibitions offer some interesting parallels and divergences, not to mention a look at a wealth of revolutionary artwork that altered art history’s path.
The O’Keeffe show, through January 17 (score one for O’Keeffe—her show runs four days longer), is subtitled Abstraction, and so excludes the best-known icons of her oeuvre depicting her identifiable New Mexico surrounds. It’s a revelation, like being able to have a meaningful conversation after deafening music stops. Certainly some work is familiar—imagery of crevasses, flowers, skies. But much of it is fresh, permitting an appreciation of O’Keeffe’s talents as an abstract painter. Elegant lines in spare compositions, intriguing hints of source imagery, and a gorgeous, clear palette. Dense shapes reminiscent of storms, waves, and geology mix with lighter ones of skies, clouds, plants.
This stunning show, curated by the Whitney’s Barbara Haskell and others, helps liberate O’Keeffe from the identifiable, if hackneyed, skull and floral/female motifs that she is famous for. The Whitney includes a selection of her husband Alfred Stieglitz’s riveting portraits of her, including nudes; unfortunately they also serve as a reminder that she has often been marginalized as a great female painter rather than simply a great painter.
A clear parallel to Kandinsky appears in some of her “music” canvases, such as Music, Pink and Blue No. 2 (1918). The music analogy is frequently applied when discussing Kandinsky (but not O’Keeffe). Kandinsky’s work fully occupies the Guggenheim, and, speaking of music, it really sings in Wright’s spiral. Makes sense—Solomon R. Guggenheim hoarded Kandinsky’s work, ultimately acquiring over 150 pieces; they formed the basis for the museum’s founding, first as the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, and then the Guggenheim. Many of the exhibition’s works are the Guggenheim’s, as well as the Staedtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus un Kusntbau in Munich, and Paris’ Centre Pompidou.
The exhibition, through January 13 and curated by a team led by the Guggenheim’s Tracey Bashkoff, covers Kandinsky’s surprisingly long career. His work through the 1910s is joyous if most familiar, from the sparkling folk influenced early phase, through the evolution into abstraction, in which fragments of sources can be traced. Compositions are stuffed with layer upon layer of color, shape, and movement, adding up to sublime, exuberant emotion. He put forth his theories about the expressive potential of music; his paintings manage to transcend form and material to elucidate them in visual practice.
After this phase, his work became far more orderly—rationality overtaking passion. It is apparent in many of his drawings, shown in a side gallery in what could be a stand-alone exhibition, that he used stencils and straightedges. These “perfect” shapes became prominent in the 1920s work on, as did separating lines, matrices, and an overall more generous sense of space surrounding forms. It almost felt as if he was trying to isolate one object from another, like a germophobe. His palette softened toward pastels; he incorporated sand as texture in his paint. Forms previously identified simply by color became neatly outlined Surrealist forms with appendages, or glyphs with secret (or no) meanings. It seems that he became another painter, someone quite apart from the Kandinsky we’re familiar with. The good news is that his best paintings look even more special in this unflinching context.
Images: (top) Georgia O’Keeffe, Music, Pink and Blue No. 2, 1981. c Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/ARS, NY. Photo: Sheldan C. Collins. (bottom) Vasily Kandinsky, Impression V (Park), March 1911. c 2009 ARS, NY/ADAGP, Paris. Photo: Bertrand Prévost, courtesy Collection Centre Pompidou, Paris, diffusion RMN.