O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism

July 7, 2017
Margaret Preston, Implement blue (1927)
Margaret Preston, Implement blue (1927)

There are exhibitions that sound marvellous in theory but somehow fail to measure up when they make it to the gallery walls. O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism at the Art Gallery of NSW is an almost perfect example. As one of those projects that puts Australian artists on equal terms with a better known artist from overseas this is a very welcome initiative. As a show that delves into art history, looking for affinities and connections across space and time, it’s an intellectually adventurous concept.

Whereas so many exhibitions have shallow, perfunctory catalogues, the publication that accompanies Making Modernism is thorough to the point of overkill, featuring three major essays and 14 smaller ones, plus an introduction.

Despite ticking all these boxes there is something so drab about this event that I’m almost shocked at my own reactions. I’ve now seen the show in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney, and it has resolutely refused to come to life. Is it just me, or are there issues worth exploring? Since the first proposition leads only into the abyss of subjectivity, it may be worthwhile proceeding as if this were a purely objective investigation.

The idea behind Making Modernism is to bring together the work of three pioneering women artists: American, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986); and her Australian peers, Margaret Preston (1875-1963) and Grace Cossington Smith (1892-1984). In her catalogue introduction Cody Hartley is “explicit” in stating that these artists were not chosen “because they are women, but because they are among the most distinctive and infuential modernists in their respective nations.”

She knows, however, that this avowal is slightly dubious. Had three male artists been chosen there would have been questions asked about the lack of a woman. Choose three women and it becomes an act of social and historical affirmation. In an ideal world gender wouldn’t be an issue, but in an era when identity politics loom so large such choices must always support a feminist agenda.

Hartley goes on to admit: “It would be disingenuous not to recognise that their experiences speak powerfully of the determination of women artists everywhere who have refused to accept conventional limitations – be they artistic or social.”

Like so many wellknown women artists, Georgia O’Keeffe preferred to be thought of simply as “an artist” but she remains a feminist icon, partly because of the evocative nature of her imagery. Her large paintings of flowers, and even her abstract compositions, were forever being interpreted as symbols of female sexuality. It doesn’t take an overheated imagination to see sexual symbolism in works such as Blue Line (1919) or Tan Clam Shell with Seaweed (1926).

Georgia O'Keeffe, Blue Line (1919)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Blue Line (1919)

O’Keeffe was probably no less preoccupied with death, her pictures of animal skulls being even more iconic than her large flowers. Both subjects are represented in a cross-section of her work drawn from the collection of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, along with paintings of the city and the desert.

I’ve looked at a lot of O’Keeffe’s images over the years but never learned to enjoy her flat, emblematic style. Some artists are capable of instilling excitement into a picture with a flick of the brush but O’Keeffe’s touch is mechanical and deliberate. This is effective in a work such as In the Patio III (1948), which has the flag-like appeal of good design. But when the artist tries to modulate colours and capture nuances of light, the results can be crude. Petunia No. 2 (1924), for instance, is an amateurish piece of painting.

Georgia O'Keeffe, In the Patio III (1948)

Georgia O’Keeffe, In the Patio III (1948)

O’Keeffe’s preference for extreme close-ups and for objects isolated in space diminishes any feeling for composition. The severe geometry of Church Steeple (1930) is an exception to the general rule.

By contrast, Margaret Preston was vitally concerned with composition, while Grace Cossington Smith experimented with many kinds of painterly touch – or tache, to use the more suggestive French word which can also mean stain, smudge, spot, patch, and so on.

So while O’Keeffe may be one of the most famous women artists of all time, with an auction record of US$44.4 million for a flower painting, her Australian peers compare very favourably. The biggest problem with Preston and Cossington Smith is that they have been included in so many shows in recent years they now feel decidedly over-exposed. Both women were given touring retrospectives in 2005, and were featured in Sydney Moderns (AGNSW, 2013) and Destination Sydney (S.H.Ervin, 2016). In the latter they were overshadowed by co-exhibitor, Cressida Campbell, who proved a much tougher competitor than O’Keeffe.

Grace Cossington Smith, Black Mountain (1931)

Grace Cossington Smith, Black Mountain (1931)

To continue the comparisons, I thought Preston’s retrospective revealed her to be a better, more versatile artist than Cossington Smith; but in Making Modernism, Cossington Smith seems the most inspired of the trio. She comes across as far more intuitive than Preston or O’Keeffe, more willing to take chances. There may be nothing in the show more adventurous than small paintings such as Black Mountain or Sea Wave (both 1931) – Symbolist landscapes alive with cosmic rhythms.

The large Landscape at Penecost (1929) is another impressively original work in which the paint has been applied in tiny, staccato brushstrokes, creating an impression of quivering energy. It’s the very antithesis to O’Keeffe’s static planes of colour.

Grace Cossington Smith, Landscape at Pentecost (1929)

Grace Cossington Smith, Landscape at Pentecost (1929)

Preston is a more programmatic painter, whose still lifes such as Implement Blue (1927) demonstrate a self-conscious commitment to modernism; and whose later ‘Aboriginal’ landscapes look to indigenous art as a starting point for a uniquely Australian style. There’s a hard-won complexity in her best pictures that sets her apart from O’Keeffe’s radical simplicity. It’s impossible to imagine the American artist ever undertaking a multifaceted tonal exercise such as Brown Pot (1940).

Margaret Preston, The Brown Pot (1940)

Margaret Preston, The Brown Pot (1940)

The main theme of this exhibition, hammered out repetitively in the catalogue, is that all three artists were pioneers of modernism in their respective countries. The second theme is that all three sought to imbue their work with a specific ‘spirit of place’.

There’s nothing controversial about such claims although the “revolutionary” nature of the artists’ achievements tends to be overstated. O’Keeffe, Preston and Cossington Smith were regional followers of European modernism who adapted its innovations for local consumption. Importers rather than exporters, they forged their originality from Parisian raw materials and sent nothing back to the source.

O’Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism
Heide Museum of Modern Art, 12 October, 2016 – 9 February, 2017
Queensland Art Gallery, 11 March – 11 June, 2017
Art Gallery of NSW, 1 July – 2 October, 2017

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 8 July, 2017