The Abstraction of Women Artists
Artist: Georgia O’Keeffe
Medium: Oil on canvas
Dimensions: 30 x 40 1/4 in. (76.2 x 102.2 cm)
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Omission is by decision. In the Metropolitan Museum of Art, less than 4% of the artists in the Modern Art section are women, though 76% of the nudes depicted are female. Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” reached the highest auction price of any painting by a woman when it sold for $44.44 million, a fraction of the price of the least expensive painting on the male artist top ten auction list, Francis Bacon’s “Three studies of Lucian Freud,” sold in 2013 for $145.0 million; a difference of one hundred million dollars.
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There is an omission of color, though the black and white paints have a bluish tint, indicating atmosphere or distance. Remember, the words used in “DESCRIPTION” should be neutral. Here, we focus on factual information. For example, 51% of artists today are women. For example, women earn half of the MFAs granted in the US, yet only a quarter of solo exhibitions in New York galleries feature women. When the Museum of Modern Art honored O’Keeffe with a retrospective in 1946, male critics were appalled. “Black Abstraction” is not currently on view at the Met.
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Very little white space appears within the frame. The intersection of white line seems to open up into something, yet a gray ring circles the central white point, in the bottom center third. Where is the flower us viewers have come to expect from an O’Keeffe, that imaged designated as a symbol of femininity, its petals glowing like desert bones? We almost expect color, brightness, a symbol of hope. But we can only analyze what the canvas gives us: a dark mesa rising from a dark plain. A single star or streetlight. A circular aura emanating outward as if its luster can only reach so far. Its blue tint is reminiscent of night, of expanse, and of the “faraway nearby” that O’Keeffe would use to sign off her letters to friends. Women artists are often treated from such a place: far from fame, near to hard work, but we should focus on the formal aspects, the principles of design. The horizon in the painting appears to be a graph charting this distance, an arc of immobility.
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I see a cold night, a painful goodbye across a long distance. The colors make me feel lonely, desolate even. Georgia O’Keeffe believed that a word’s meaning “is not as exact as the meaning of a color. Color and shapes make a more definite statement than words.” The colors meld into a moon and a cliff, folded within about three quarters of a vinyl record. I see an EP that hasn’t made the radio. Where are the women on record? If only 4% of artists in a gallery are women, if 76% of nudes are female, doesn’t walking a gallery feel like moving through an erasure? The statistics make it clear who owns the art world, and who has trespassed, snuck in unwelcome. It feels like static. Here, O’Keeffe has painted stillness, paralysis. Who has broken the record so it repeats a single track, and who has cracked it in half, forcing us to discover a new tune?
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This is the time for your opinions to shine through! I’ve taken art history classes, studied articles and books, and visited museums in Chicago, New York, and Paris. Initially in the galleries, O’Keeffe was the only woman artist I recognized. On all those early trips, I didn’t know of Dorothea Tanning, Kay Sage, Remedios Varo, or Leonora Carrington, yet I knew the nudes of Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali. I couldn’t name any paintings by women. But I could name “Woman Before An Aquarium,” “Portrait of a Young Girl,” “Woman with a Head of Roses.”
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I saw my body in each painting. I never saw the work a person with that body could do. I grew up believing I’d never be a painter, though maybe a model. A muse. Gallery curators, textbook authors, and art history professors made that decision for me, and it took ten years for me to realize they were wrong; Meret Oppenheim’s Object was not the only surrealist work by a woman, and women did more than sleep with the male artists or pose for photographs on the beach. With the omission of women’s work, young artists have a limited perspective of their futures. For us women, the horizon line is impossibly far and the distance incredible.
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The curators’ judgment has a lasting impact on future generations; the past has confined us. O’Keeffe, who worked as a successful artist despite the obstacles she faced, once admitted, “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life—and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.” She was not alone in her fear or her hatred of the qualifier with which she found herself saddled by art critics: best, most famous, highly paid woman artist. I want to reclaim artist for her. I want to remove the boundaries faced by women and so many marginalized groups.
If the qualifiers are removed, we’re left with so many masterpieces. This is not to say that I believe art should be anonymous—I want to celebrate the achievements of women and stripping gender from the work and the artist herself may not accomplish that task. But if we begin to break down the divide, discussing art as art and letting its creator be secondary to the conversation, then the narrative could be reframed and lesser-known works, re-hung. We could honor great women and repair the record.