Renoir and Ida O'Keeffe at the Clark

Renoir: The Body, The Senses (through September 22, 2019)
Ida O'Keeffe: Escaping Georgia's Shadow (through October 6, 2019)
Clark Institute of Art
Williamstown, MA 

This summer's blockbuster exhibit at the Clark is devoted to Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919). In Renoir's lifetime he was heralded but his star faded to the point that, in 1986, one critic proclaimed him the "worst artist to ever achieve canonical status." I wouldn't go that far, but I confess that I'm more in second camp than the first. He's not my least favorite Impressionist–a category I reserve for Mary Cassatt–but I generally spend my time in Impressionist galleries gazing at the work of those I find more interesting (Pissarro, Monet, Manet, Morisot, Sisley).

The Clark's core collection features a lot of Impressionist works, so you go with what you've got and build on it. It's Renoir show dwells upon his nudes and how his attention to color, form, and texture impacted subsequent artists. His admirers were many and varied, among them Picasso, Maillol, L├ęger, and Matisse. Selections of their work are displayed as well so that one can make comparisons. Did this change my mind about Renoir?    

Not really. I get what art historians have said about Renoir's cheerful palette, one that's heavy on pastels and soft lines. At the end of the day, though, there's a reason why his work found favor with the tastemakers of his day when critics savaged many of his contemporaries. Renoir simply didn't spill much bathwater, even when painting nudes. His fleshy puffball bodies stand solidly within a canon forged by past masters such as Titian, Ruben, and Tintoretto. Some have called Renoir's work innocent in a prelapsarian fashion, though today some of the bodies he painted look pretty young and might ruffle contemporary feathers. I'm not going there other than to say that it's usually unfair to pass ex post facto judgment on cultural value systems. For me, Renoir's faces are more problematic than his bodies; they often appear vacant and/or insipid.

Mostly The Body, The Senses underwhelmed me because I found the work of Renoir's admirers far more interesting than his own. There is a telling remark is one of the panels in which Renoir is quoted as saying that he did not see his work as a radical departure as it was always his intent to fit within the sweep of Western European painting. He largely succeeded, which begs the question of whom do we find more appealing, those who long to conform (Renoir) or those who spit in the eye of convention (Manet, Picasso, Lautrec). My vote goes to the rebels. 

Ida and Georgia at Peace

For me, the Clark's best current exhibit is one devoted to Ida Ten Eyck O'Keeffe (1889-1961). If that last name tempts you to wonder if she was related to Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), the answer is yes; she was one of Georgia's sisters and to say that there was family drama involved would be an understatement.

Let's start with why we know Georgia's name, but not Ida's. It's not because Ida was trying to piggyback on her older sister. She was a serious artist in her own right who apprenticed with a printmaker before obtaining an MFA at Columbia. Another sister, Anita, also trained as an artist. Here's where it gets ugly. Georgia was fiercely protective of her own artistic reputation and didn't like family competition. Anita faithfully gave up her art career at Georgia's insistence, but Ida did not. Georgia at first supported Ida, but things eventually soured and Georgia did little to help and quite a lot to discourage. (It probably didn't help matters that Georgia's husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, tried to seduce Ida. She rebuffed him, but one wonders if this got back to Georgia.)

The real question is how Ida's work stacks up. She's not another Georgia and her work is best approached on its own merits. The Clark showcases several aspects of her work. She was assuredly an observant modernist with an eye for reducing objects to geometric forms and sharp angles. I particularly liked her series of paintings depicting the solidity of Highland Light in North Truro (Cape Cod). Note how the lighthouse beam captures a fish as if it is being beamed aboard. She captures similar abstracted magic of a harbor scene in which bridge, sails, and cables are reduced to straight lines and bathed in somber light.  

Ida also painted buildings differently. Compare, for instance, how Ida rendered a Missouri limekiln as if it were a Spanish cathedral. It evokes the rooted-earth and reduce-to-basic shapes style of someone such as Charles Sheeler or Charles Demuth. If you know Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of New Mexico adobe churches you can see how Ida tracked differently. There is also Star Gazing in Texas, which shows Ida at home with the proletarian art of the Great Depression. She's more Grant Wood than Georgia O'Keeffe in this iteration.

 Is Ida O'Keeffe an underappreciated great artist? That might be a bit much to claim, but she's intriguing and one wonders what her reputation would have been without all the family sturm und drang. She once proclaimed that she too would have been famous if she had a Stieglitz backing her. Was this a passive aggressive backslap at her headstrong and ego-fragile sister? Perhaps. Georgia invested a lot of energy is creating a Stieglitz-free niche for herself once she began spending more time in New Mexico than in New York, but it was her New York reputation that gave her the space and money to break out. Could she have done so without Stieglitz? As they say, families are complicated!

Rob Weir  

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