Women Artists of the 20th Century

Georgia O'Keeffe

I once met Georgia O’Keeffe. This was not easy to do, and I considered it an achievement.

It was in the early nineteen-seventies, when I was in my early twenties. I was working at Sotheby’s, in New York, in the American paintings department. One of the things I did there was catalogue the works that we sold. I held each picture in my hands, felt its shape and weight. I measured and described it, recording the medium, condition, signature. The date. The provenance and exhibition history. I came to know the works very well.

During this time I had begun to write about American art. I was particularly interested in the modernists, those early-twentieth-century artists who were part of the rising tide of abstraction. I wrote about different members of this group—Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove. I wanted to write about O’Keeffe, but this was difficult. She held the copyright to many of her paintings, so it was necessary to ask permission from her in order to reproduce them. This was one reason that relatively little scholarship had appeared on her: How could you write a book about art without using images? Another reason was the confusion that permeated critical response to her work until well into the sixties. All those flowers! Was she a great artist or a cheap sentimentalist? The work was so easy to like—could it be important? She was scorned by the guys, and, if you wanted to be taken seriously as a scholar, it seemed risky to write about her.

Another reason for the paucity of writing about O’Keeffe was her own inaccessibility. She lived in a small village in rural New Mexico and rarely gave interviews. Seclusion and withholding were part of her persona. She was not interested in publicity, and it is said that she once refused a request for a one-person show at the Louvre. Here was a paradox: the work, so intimate and engaging, even accessible, and the artist, so remote and self-controlled, clothed in severe black and white. The mystery gave O’Keeffe a kind of charged glamour. A sighting was a significant event.

That season, Sotheby’s had received an O’Keeffe painting of Canadian barns. It had been done in the early nineteen-thirties: two dark gray buildings in a wintry landscape. I catalogued it, and asked Doris Bry—O’Keeffe’s private agent, who had once been the assistant to Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s former husband—for information on it. Later she called me. “Mrs. Alger,” she said (for that was my name then), “this is Doris Bry.” Of course I knew who it was. She had a dry, gravelly voice, very distinctive, with a Waspy drawl. “I’m calling about the painting of Canadian barns.”

“Yes, Miss Bry.” I used my formal, fluty, professional tone. “How may I help you?”

“I’d like to have the painting brought over to my apartment.”

Doris Bry lived in an apartment in the Pulitzer mansion. This was a grand Beaux-Arts building, only a few blocks away from our offices on Madison Avenue. But it didn’t matter how close she was. “I’m so sorry, Miss Bry,” I said, “but our insurance policies don’t permit the works to leave the premises until they have legally changed hands. If you’d like to bring someone in to see the painting, I’ll be happy to have it brought out to the viewing room and put up on the easel. But I can’t allow the painting to leave our property.”

“Mrs. Alger,” Miss Bry said, “the artist is here. She would like to see the painting.”

“I’ll be there in ten minutes,” I said, in my normal voice.

I called storage to have the painting brought out. I had it under my arm and was walking down the hall on my way to the front door when I ran into my boss.

“What are you carrying?” he asked.

“Canadian barns,” I said, putting a hand over the frame protectively.

“Where are you going?” he asked. “It can’t leave the premises.”

“The artist wants to see it,” I said.

My boss put out his hand. “I’ll take it.”

“I answered the phone,” I said. “I’m taking it.”

With the painting under my arm, I walked down Madison Avenue to the Pulitzer mansion. Doris Bry ushered me into her apartment. She was a tall, stately woman, rather ponderous. She had dark eyes, pale, lightless skin, and a mass of short gray curls. She brought me into the living room, where there were three other people—two lawyers in dark suits and an older woman. Bry introduced me.

“This is Mrs. Alger, from Sotheby’s.” The woman nodded pleasantly but said nothing. She was much smaller than I, which surprised me. She had a lined face, dark, hooded eyes, and long silvery hair coiled into a low bun. She wore a gray cotton housedress with a white collar and a narrow self-belt. On her feet, she wore flat black Chinese slippers, with straps across the insteps.

Everyone watched as I carried the painting across the room and set it on the easel. The small woman came with me, but Bry and the lawyers stood at the back of the room, talking. Georgia O’Keeffe and I stood in front of the painting. She looked quietly at the canvas, as though it were part of her, as if she were alone with it.

I stood silently beside her. But that wasn’t enough. When people meet someone famous, often they want to inflect themselves upon the moment, to impose their own identities upon that of the famous person. They say, “I grew up in your town,” or, “I have that same scarf,” or, “I met you once in a train station.” It’s a hopeless venture.

“I hope you like the frame,” I said. I had ordered it myself. It was a simple silver half clamshell, the kind that Arthur Dove had used. I knew O’Keeffe had liked Dove and had admired his work. I knew she’d like the frame. She’d be grateful. This was my moment.

She answered without turning. “I like them best without frames.”

I said nothing more. She stood looking at the painting, calm and utterly self-possessed. I think she was wearing a black sweater, a thin little cardigan, not buttoned up.

She’d have been in her early eighties then.

Nearly twenty years later, in the spring of 1986, I was living in northern Westchester County. We had moved there ten years earlier, my family and I. We were out in the country, in an old farmhouse with a big barn and some fields. Living with us were four or five horses, two or three dogs, and some large cats. My daughter was fourteen. I had left the art world.

One evening, my husband, Tony, came home from the city and found me in the kitchen. He was in his business suit, still carrying his briefcase.

“I have something to tell you,” he said. On the train coming out, he’d sat next to a friend of ours, Edward Burlingame, who was the editor-in-chief and publisher at Harper & Row. Edward had said, “Georgia O’Keeffe has just died, and there isn’t a big biography of her. Who do you think we should ask to write it?”

— Roxana Robinson for The New Yorker, excerpt

Frida Kahlo

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Legendary artist Frida Kahlo spent most of 1950 in a hospital bed in Mexico City, recovering from a series of spinal surgeries. Her recuperation involved bed rest, during which her torso was immobilized in a heavy plaster cast. In a telling contemporary photograph of the painter and future global feminist icon, she is propped up against her pillows, embellishing the front of her latest plaster corset with the aid of a hand mirror and a tiny brush. Her pointy nails are lacquered with dark polish. Her center-parted hair is pulled back neatly. A pile of satin ribbons and flowers adorns the crown of her head. She sports dangly earrings, chunky rings on every finger, and a pair of bracelets.

Regardless of the degree to which she was suffering, Frida Kahlo always enjoyed the spectacle of herself. She was a playful exhibitionist, a fervid and erotic provocateur dispatching updates from the land of female suffering. It was part of what made her difficult: She forced people to look at her, to share her feelings, when they would prefer to look away.

Magdalena Carmen Frieda Kahlo y Calderón was born in Coyoacán, a tidy suburb of Mexico City, in July 1907. Until the day Frida (she dropped the “e” in 1922) was hit by a streetcar—literally, at the age of 18—nothing in her upper-middle-class background would disclose her future: that she would one day become Mexico’s most celebrated painter, a sexy international art megastar and pop icon who would produce unnerving masterpieces that would hang in the world’s major museums. Or that she would “enjoy” a passionate, tumultuous marriage to Mexico’s most famous muralist and womanizer, Diego Rivera. Frida and Diego married for the first time in 1929, divorced in 1939, remarried in 1940, and remained wed until Frida’s untimely death in 1954, at the age of 47. Years after both artists were dead, a travel squib appeared in the New York Times, which included the sentence: “Though they created some of Mexico’s most fascinating art, it’s the bizarre Beauty-and-the-Beast dynamic that has captivated the world and enshrouded both figures in intrigue.”

— National Geographic, excerpt

Yayoi Kusama

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WASHINGTON — The exhibition “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” at the Hirshhorn Museum is great fun if you like to be dazzled by rooms whose mirrored interiors create countless, ever-diminishing reflections of themselves and anything in them. And who doesn’t?

The exhibition “Yayoi Kusama: Infinity Mirrors” at the Hirshhorn Museum is great fun if you like to be dazzled by rooms whose mirrored interiors create countless, ever-diminishing reflections of themselves and anything in them. And who doesn’t?

Ms. Kusama, who was born in Japan in 1929, made her first Infinity Mirror room, “Phalli’s Field,” in New York in 1965, filling the 15-square-foot floor of a mirrored space with hundreds of her signature stuffed phalli, or tubers, covered in red-on-white polka-dot fabric. The effect was glorious, beguiling. And still is: “Phalli’s Field” is the first mirrored environment in the Hirshhorn show. Step into it and you enter another world, an eye-popping garden of benign cactuses spreading out in all directions, or an underwater wonderland of coral or sea anemones.

Over the past several decades, “Phalli’s Field” and the 19 other mirrored rooms Ms. Kusama has made since have established her as a beloved figure. Crowds line up around the block to enter her rooms, one person at a time; absorb their illusionistic, sometimes meditative effects; and step out, usually after the requisite selfie. Some time ago, she transcended the art world to become a fixture of popular culture, in a league with Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Keith Haring, all of whom she preceded and probably influenced, not least in her grasp of publicity.

The Hirshhorn show is the first to focus so intently on her mirrored-room environments. Organized by Mika Yoshitake, the museum’s associate curator, it brings together six of them, more than in any previous show. Evenly spaced around one of the Hirshhorn’s rings, the rooms have their own waiting areas, where visitors will line up in manageable numbers, the museum says, because the show has timed tickets. Depending upon the length of the lines, each visitor may be permitted only 30 seconds in a room.

The wide fame of Ms. Kusama and artists like her is usually built on serious art-world street cred. By the time she made “Phalli’s Field,” Ms. Kusama was already a phenomenon. She had arrived in 1958 and, within two years, established herself as a major artist in a thoroughly male-dominated art world.

For more than 50 years, the Japanese ultra-Pop artist has awed audiences by crafting sculptural illusions with light and mirrors to replicate the sense of infinity. Experience five rooms at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.CreditCredit...Tyrone Turner for The New York Times Ms. Kusama’s critical triumph was based on her abstract “Infinity Net” paintings, which she unveiled in her first gallery show, in 1960, along with the slightly later “Accumulations” sculptures. They first made manifest the willful intensity in nearly everything she does, as well as an almost compulsive use of repetition.

The “Net” paintings were among the first to completely absorb and transform Jackson Pollock’s radical drip paintings. They showed a way beyond Abstract Expressionism, which was by then dwindling to empty, overblown gestures. Ms. Kusama reduced them to miniature, possibly taunting, feminine gestures. She covered expanses of canvas painted a monochrome of red, green, white or goldenrod yellow with open patterns of tiny, comma-like strokes — a form of craft, almost, but a very expressive one — often in marathon work sessions. The background color peeks through, while the inevitable irregularities of the handmade curls create a hypnotic, energized field, arguably the best Op Art ever made.

There are four ’60s “Net” paintings at the Hirshhorn, but you can also see the motif germinating in a clutch of visionary works on paper that Ms. Kusama made while still in Japan. The “Net” motif was further spurred by the sight of the Pacific Ocean as she flew to America, and her impatience with Abstract Expressionism once she got here.

The “Accumulations” sculptures and installations are pieces of furniture bristling with the stuffed phalli, usually painted white. The results, as seen at the Hirshhorn in two armchairs from the early ’60s and a 1994 version of a rowboat piece redone in a sparkling violet synthetic fabric, create a sense of occupation or possession. These objects seem to have been overtaken by a horde of alien creatures. They announce their independence from human use while exuding a visual and tactile magnetism.

— Roberta Smith for The New York Times, excerpt