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Georgia O'Keefe: Catch Her If You Can

By Jeffrey Lee

OCTOBER 6, 1997:  There's a joke about the tourist who drives up to Abiquiu. He stops one of the locals and asks, "Is this where Georgia O'Keeffe lived?" The guy answers, "She wasn't a lesbian!" If devotees guard her reputation like loyal cabinet officials, it's because O'Keeffe is more important to them as a personality than as a painter. The image they protect is derived not from her paintings but from hundreds of photographs of her famously sunned face. Her mythic appeal is so powerful it gets in the way of any reasoned judgment of her work.

Georgia O'Keeffe: From 291 to New Mexico, now in its last two weeks at the Albuquerque Museum, might have revised the standard image. Instead, it follows the usual practice of O'Keeffe exhibits. There aren't, in fact, many O'Keeffes in it. Its centerpiece is a video documentary more concerned with biographical details than with paint on canvas, shown on a monitor surrounded by folding chairs in a small, chapel-like room. The walls are covered not with paintings but with photographer Dan Budnick's portraits. The day I was there, five or six worshippers were huddled around the monitor, but only the security guard was in the adjoining gallery where the paintings are.

Maybe the infatuation with O'Keeffe as an icon arises from the disappointment so many people feel when confronted with her work. It's often been observed, even by admirers, that her paintings look better on calendars, posters and cards than in person. The solid, flat fields of color the posters promise are sometimes laboriously worked in brushstrokes that can reveal an uncertain or over-cautious hand.

The finest of the few paintings on show are Winter Trees, a small abstraction of tree shapes in shadowy whites with a hint of sunset blush, and Shell and Feather, a tiny, decorative work in whites and grays. The latter's monochrome pallette, its technical accomplishment, its organic forms flirting with abstraction, all show O'Keeffe at her most accomplished. But both pictures are overwhelmed by what surrounds them: pictures of Gallery 291, framed letters to or from Steiglitz, copies of Camerawork under glass. And those ubiquitous photos of that ubiquitous face. This approach to an "overview" doesn't place O'Keeffe in perspective; it just creates a diversion.

--Jeffrey Lee

Georgia O'Keeffe: From 291 to New Mexico runs thru Oct. 19 at 2000 Mountian Road NW. Call 242-4600.


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