Lake George Coat and Red  1919 []

Lake George Coat and Red 1919 []

San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum is showing “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe & Lake George” through May 11. It’s early work, before she got into her iconic western stuff. It’s odd. It’s irregular. Much of it, like “Lake George Coat and Red” is harsh, vulgar, and unpleasant (although to be fair, the original is somewhat more  coherent than this photo). We tend to associate modernist painting with free-wheeling brushwork, but O’Keeffe worked with a pretty small brush, carefully gradating each shape from dark to middle tones, seldom to light. I find little evidence of exploration or experiment as the work progressed. She seems to have worked it all out in her mind before starting: what’s going to happen, where it’s going to go, what it’s supposed to mean. The effect is like being lectured to by a very stern pedagogue.

So much for a great deal of the show; but here and there we find more

A Celebration  1924  []

A Celebration 1924 []

interesting stuff. “A Celebration” seems to come from actual observation, from  looking at clouds and responding to the shapes. “Humble” is an odd word to apply here, but it applies; she’s sharing her delight in something wonderful, not laying down the law about it.

“Lake George” produces much the same effect. It’s a tad washy, just a scootch wandering, but the effect is fine: reserved and contemplative.

Lake George  1922 []

Lake George 1922 []









Lake George Window  1929  []

Lake George Window 1929 []

Then we come to one of the strongest, most carefully observed and formally inventive pieces, “Lake George Window.” Here O’Keeffe is very decisive, very masterful, but the piece is so inventive, so frankly lifted from reality, and lifted so far, that you can almost hear her chuckling as she laid it in.

And yet–and yet–the paint is laid down carefully but not quite carefully enough as she worked up to the edges of those large rectangular shapes. The strokes come down each side of each shape, a little wandering, a little insecure. The way she paints, these bobbles aren’t expressive. She doesn’t mean them to be expresseive. They are merely weaknesses, distractions, mistakes. But clearly she isn’t going to be drawn into anything that looks like vagueness or suggestion, where she might in some tiny degree lose control of the message. The pedagogue is still in charge, however subtly.




"Colma Ridge"  1967  74x75" []

“Coloma Ridge”     1967      74×75″     []

Among the many fascinations of Wayne Thiebaud’s work is his happy incorporation of elements both representational and abstract in the same piece. Of course, every painting is abstract in the sense that its design is made up of shapes and colors that may or may not be representational, but few artists bounce from one degree of improbability to another as freely and playfully as Thiebaud.

As in “Coloma Ridge.” Thiebaud loves corners, and plunges unabashedly from the upper left to the lower right. The landscape cascading down the top of the ridge is representational, if stylized in the Thiebaudian manner, but then the sliced-off cliff settles into straight abstraction. He keeps it all in one design by counterchange (the lower left is dark with lights in it; the upper right is light with darks in it, especially those unlikely but happily linking blue shadows), and by the many and varied repetitions of swoopy diagonals. Not merely an audacious image, but a very sound composition.

Fans of Downton Abby will recognize the appeal of country life as painted by George Stubbs (1724 – 1806). It’s an ordered society where everyone has a place, and knows it. And, unlike Downton, is happy–at least so far as we can tell from the discreet

Haymakers  1785 [Wikimedia Commons]

Haymakers 1785 [Wikimedia Commons]

distance where Stubbs places us. Even when the gentleman owner comes by (below), everyone seems contented. It’s certainly not the more textured view of that world that we get from Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, (1749) for example. But then it was the gentleman owners who were buying Stubb’s paintings, so very likely intimations of social discontents would have been unwelcome, even if Stubbs had been inclined to make them. Instead he sticks to his wonderful trees and skies, gives special attention to the horses that made his reputation as a painter, and places a handsome frieze of clean, diligent, well-dressed workers across the foreground.

Harvest  1785  [Wikimedia Commons]

Harvest 1785 [Wikimedia Commons]

Interesting, in light of Stubbs’ apparent social conservatism, is his formal freedom. In ‘Harvest’ the trees are painted in the rich light-and-shadow of late afternoon, while the workers and their sheaves of wheat are in a flat studio light that lets Stubbs use their light-toned garments, and especially the whites, as flat, decorative shapes set off with strong, improbable shadows. The horse meanwhile, gets the full treatment: dark blacks, intense reds that rhyme the red in the trees, white legs to carry along the workers’ frieze, and fuller modeling (notice the glistening rump) than anything else in the painting. And notice the man and woman on the far left: the line of trees slopes down to them, but is intercepted by their sheaves, and stopped dead by her black hat and white scarf and face. And they are looking back at the gent. Our eye, having moved along to them, now follows their gaze back to the center and to the white-clad woman who stitches foreground, middle, and backgrounds together, and holds it all in stillness.