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Saturday, March 12, 2016

Guerrilla Docent

I've said before that one of these days I'm going to get into a fist-fight with a museum docent. It could even happen in Santa Fe, and it will start with eye-rolling. In the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum today, I heard only the wrap-up from a docent and thought it pretty much contentless. Granted, the previous pronouncements may have been brilliant, so I didn't actually do her any violence, but I got to thinking about what might happen if I lived in Santa Fe and volunteered as a docent. How much trouble would I get into? I reject a lot of popular interpretation of her work, especially the Freudian frenzy engendered by her flowers. No, Virginia, she was not sex-crazed. She simply painted what she saw. She said so. It's on tape. Why not take her at her word and realize she applied that same direct vision to bones and mountains and mesas and mission architecture. Since I believe the same Creator made the reproductive organs of plants and those of animals and humans, it isn't a shock to see that the reproductive parts may resemble each other. So stop with the smirking and tittering. 
It struck me especially today how O'Keeffe focused on edges, borderlines, where things meet. A charcoal sketch from 1916 shows the meeting of a fabric drape with what may be a plaid dishtowel, itself folded into many little canyons. That was the year she leapt into modernism. The theme turns up again and again decades later in her landscapes and things like "The Black Place."
It's a real spot in New Mexico where the edges of mountains fold together, and she painted many versions of it, this place where things meet. I think it's important that there is no sky in this image. For a long time, she emphasized close-up objects with seldom a glimpse of sky, except as background, but as she aged, that began to change. And as I age, I think I understand it better.
And here's where I became the Guerrilla Docent. I heard a young teen girl ask her father why O'Keeffe would have re-painted "City Lights," a view of New York City originally done in 1926, fifty years later, and made it twice the size. Dad had no opinion. I swooshed over to her-- OK, crept with some trepidation-- and asked "Would you like to hear an old person's answer to your question?" She and father said yes, so I opined. 

The first version looks through the canyon formed by the skyscrapers, with a tiny streetlight at the bottom. The 70s version looks upward to a prominent sky and its bright stars. She's looking at another sort of border, the one between this world and the next, something old people tend to do. It shows in the more abstract paintings she did at the end of her life when she had to have assistants hold her hands up. The sky is now the beyond, mysterious, a place of its own, which borders on this world. 
The dear girl studied the two NYC images and said, "You're right!" I could have kissed her. 

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