I see so many things, a primitive ring,
a nest with a fallen-out bottom,
a white rubber band snapped into blue.
But mostly it’s real memory
and the doctor holding up my x-ray
to the screen of light, a mini drive-in.
. . .
Last week we went to go see Georgia O’Keefe: Circling around Abstraction at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts. It was disappointing, given that there were only 42 or so works displayed and they charged a premium for entry. Looking at the video online from the same show at the Norton Museum, it seems as if there were a lot of works missing. I didn’t buy the monograph, but I had wondered why there even was a monograph given the less than earth-shattering premiseof the unremarkable collection. The really interesting thing to me isn’t simply that O’Keefe “circled” abstraction, but that she steadfastly refused to land. The primary reason usually given is that she was horrified by the interpretations attached to her abstract works by critics.
But the show made me think just the same. One of the placards referred to the pelvis series as an exploration of the “bone lens.” This phrase has stuck in my head for several days now. A quote purported to be from a 1944 exhibition catalog tends to support this quirky interpretation of the pelvic bone paintings:
It’s tempting to wax metaphoric about the potential connotations of a “bone lens”—a human (or even animal) observer could be said to have their view bent by the not-so-simple qualities of being flesh and bone. Or, the choice of the pelvic bone, of all things—the “seat” (pun intended) of all location/locomotion that we creatures do. The colors, viewed through the ivory holes, are modulated in response to their enframing. But the temptation of such interpretive tracks neglect one crucial problem: we do not view through lenses of bone. Our lenses are made of water. Taken as a potentially physical problem, the metaphor must be inverted: it would be the clouds in the sky that have the true commonality of substance with human lenses— sky blue waters reflect a quality that cannot be made corporeal. Blue cannot be rendered comprehensively as a substance, no more than people can.
The limits of the incessant explanation of the visual have been on my mind a lot lately. To appropriate Eudora Welty again and twist her to the canvas of O’Keefe, “sometimes a cow pelvis is just a cow pelvis.” O’Keefe stuck close to realism in order to avoid the sort of facile metaphoric explanation that abstraction easily falls prey too. Worse still, I think, is the belief that the job of the visual critic is to explain the common (or not so common) sense implications of pictures—for example, Hariman’s recent claim that images convey “character.”
It’s clear that people make judgments based on what they see—I remember my old friend Harris Hartsfield’s BFA exhibition well. He photographed African American doctors, lawyers, and other professionals dressed in white tee shirts against a white backdrop in full face mug-shot style. The fear generated by these images in its primarily white audience at Cal Arts was diffused when the viewers came forward to read the labels that named and identified what were initially perceived as frightening and criminal presences—I don’t remember the year exactly, but it would have been in the aftermath of the LA riots. I’m in shock that an otherwise astute political commentator like Hariman would suggest that it’s reasonable to assume that we can spot the villain because their faces suggest their black hearts underneath—that is downright boneheaded.
Reflecting on the O’Keefe exhibit, it seems to me that we have to see vision as essentially fluid, filling for a moment the boundaries imposed by our mortal presence. At least, that’s what I feel in my bones.