Friday, September 13, 2013

Is Georgia O'Keefe A Realist Too?

In the process of trying to find the "best" American artist, I looked at many paintings. I couldn't really say the arguments for "best" were all that valid as I think that each of the articles I saw were heavily biased by the author. However, one of the things that was clear was that there are many American artists that have captured the hearts of their fellow citizens.

After my mother moved to New Mexico from Portland, OR when I was going to Oklahoma State University, I had chances during several summers and the nine or so months I lived there after returning from the Peace Corps to "get into" New Mexico.

After Oregon, there really is no comparison. Even eastern Oregon, about as dry as much of New Mexico, doesn't have the sweep or the landscape. The vistas used to great advantage by the Native American and Spanish settlers somehow has created an artistic world all its own. The challenge for artists then is to capture it.

I learned to love the shades of browns, yellows and reds, purples and blues and few greens coming from a land that was mostly green. For the first time I realized a forest is fairly boring. Here, you could literally see for miles and the colors changed with distance. It seemed you could literally see the end of the earth!

I will never forget the assault on the senses of walking up Canyon Road in Santa Fe, NM, seeing the wild colors on the houses and even more color in the shops. The canyon was awash with color.

O'Keefe, a midwesterner, who married the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz in NYC had a studio and finally settled in New Mexico. She seemed the perfect artist to capture what was around her. Until I saw my first sunset on the Sandia Mountains behind Albuquerque, I never realized that mountains really could turn watermelon red and that shadows were not blue or black but brilliant purple.

O'Keef's style is realism...but in some ways hyper realism or fantasy realism. The images are sharp and clear, detailed yet they are often used in ways that are not real. Like Dali whose surrealism was distorted and at times impossible to understand, her images were sharp and clear yet distorted as well.

O'Keefe used realism to create a world of things we might understand but used them in ways we had never seen before. Her florals are ravishing and yet many are borderline pornographic. We know they are flowers but we also know they could be something else. Her famous cow skulls stare at us with a realism and mortality that we find uncomfortable to stare at. Even earlier city scenes create both a realistic cityscape but are clothed in fantastic dynamism. These press on you bringing you closer as you tend to fight to get away.

There can be no doubt realism is important in art. Even though it appears to be exactly what the artist saw, any artist knows that some things are added and others left out. While it is realistic, it is also an expression of what the artist saw and felt. That, in essence, is what realism is all about.

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