“Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” the big temporary exhibit currently at San Francisco’s de Young museum, is now in its final weeks. I’m not normally a huge O’Keeffe fan — I prefer my art with less optimistic exuberance and more explicit sexual politics — but I have the requisite feminist admiration for her work. I visited the show this weekend with guests from out of town and was surprised by what I found. “Modern Nature” focuses on O’Keeffe’s earlier years, in particular her summers spent at Lake George with Alfred Stiegletz. More than anything it emphasizes how the beauty of lake and its surrounds made its way into her watery landscapes and vibrant floral images. By way of informational text, the paintings on display were accompanied primarily by quotes from O’Keeffe about the loveliness of her placid surroundings and little interpretive commentary. Visitors of all ages drifted through the space with faint smiles. In the gift shop, umbrellas featured O’Keeffe’s purple blooms. It was all exceedingly pleasant.
When it comes to the narratives we tell through art, I’m highly suspicious of pleasantness; it rarely tells the whole story. In this case I was amazed that the exhibit managed, with one brief and telling exception, to avoid all mention of the body. In both popular culture and gender-oriented art history, O’Keeffe’s work is most frequently (and perhaps most dismissively) referred to as being about, well, vaginas. Sometimes you hear about how her work empowers women through her bold, beautiful representation of the female form. Sometimes you hear about how her work speaks to same-sex desires: a woman gazing at the curving, folded flesh of a woman. Sometimes you hear O’Keeffe’s admirers complain about how her images are often reduced to genitalia jokes. And sometimes, as recently happened in my own art history classroom, you hear neoliberal post-feminists scoff at all that “lady part painting girl power.”
Meanwhile, “Modern Nature” sidesteps all of those debates by ignoring the body completely. It’s not to say that every O’Keeffe exhibit has to focus on her abstract interpretations of the human — but to pretend that the works on display had no relation to people felt like a deliberate gag order on the elephant in the room. For the most part the curators hushed up the issue by choosing images that appeared to most literally represent nature: paintings of trees, leaves, flowers (though we know an O’Keeffe flower is rarely just a flower). If I had to re-title the exhibit, I’d choose “Georgia O’Keeffe: Finally A Chance to Not Talk about Vaginas,” or maybe “Georgia O’Keeffe: An Exhibit You Can Bring Your Grandmother To.”
One set of images, however, broke conspicuously with the trend to ignore the body. It also managed to make it laughably clear that the body loomed large yet unspeakable in the otherwise notably sanitized exhibit. The first image (all three are from O’Keeffe’s Series 1, though they don’t represent the complete series), we see what looks a whitefish mound with two peaks, following by some abstracted greenery, and then the deep blue reflection of mountains overlooking a lake. The explanatory text, insightfully enough, pointed out that, while this painting seems abstract, it could in fact be depicting the artist’s own knees as she sits on a canoe on Lake George. In the second image that the curators selected from the series, the greenery and the lake have been pushed further to the edges of the frame by the white knee form, which has grown larger, more corporeal, and notably ass-like. Here the explanatory text offers us the exhibit’s only mention of the body. Of the knee-forms, the explanation admits euphemistically, “Their curves and folds, so unlike the artist’s own [slender] body, suggest possible associations with other elements of human anatomy.” Really? Then comes the third image. Now the white knee-shapes have morphed unmistakably into “other elements of the human anatomy” — specifically a rear end with raised legs, a flowering vulva, and an exposed pink anus.
Yet this third image (along with the fourth in the series, which reads as more “simply” vaginal) comes with no explanatory text. That is, after hinting at the bodily implications of these Lake George images, the exhibit falls silent. Out of embarrassment? Out of decorum? Given O’Keeffe’s prolific production during this period, why include this painting only to ignore it? Though each element of the exhibit has been carefully planned, it feels as if this one work, with its bold if abstracted exposure of the celebrated abject, has snuck in among the plants and landscapes to remind us that 1) the body is always at stake in O’Keeffe’s work, as it is in any work, and 2) that pretending that the story of her art can be told without the body can itself never amount to more than a suspiciously tight-lipped pleasantry.