In the 1910s, photographer Alfred Stieglitz branded Georgia O'Keeffe as the world's first female modernist, a schoolteacher turned painter whose vivid studies of flowers resembled human sexual organs. "Finally, a woman on paper," Stieglitz, a popular Manhattan gallerist and future husband of O'Keeffe, said of her early charcoal drawings. "She's got the sensitive emotion — I'd know she was a woman. Look at that line."
That comment, found in the catalog of the Norton Museum of Art's new show "O'Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York," is revealing for Stieglitz's view of O'Keeffe's career: Her sexuality and female identity turned heads in the male-dominated modern-art scene. O'Keeffe's celebrity soared in the 1920s, says the Norton Museum's Ellen Roberts, but she argues that "Stieglitz was ignoring [O'Keeffe's] aesthetic and individuality. She wanted to be seen as a great modernist, not a great woman modernist."
"Plenty of women dealt with the challenges of being modernists in those years. They had children. Galleries gave them fewer opportunities," says Roberts, the museum's American Art curator. "Self-expression plays a huge part in the modernism movement."
Female artists' struggle for self-expression in America's modern-art capital unfolds in the Norton Museum's 65-artwork survey. It also marks the first time O'Keeffe has been paired with three other New York modernists — Florine Stettheimer, Helen Torr and Marguerite Zorach — contemporaries who knew one another and pioneered perceptions of gender in the arts.
In the gallery, visitors must zigzag through four color-coded sections, starting with Zorach's embroideries and paintings of female nudes. (Roberts saves O'Keeffe for last, as a way of "introducing new artists first that people probably haven't heard of.") Zorach experiments with the female nude in her 1920 painting "Prohibition," depicting a woman striking a statuelike pose in the company of two fully dressed male drinkers. Having studied European modernists such as Matisse and Picasso in Paris, Zorach here is confronting the role of female nudes in modern art, Roberts says.
"She doesn't paint otherworldly nymphs or goddesses like Matisse did," Roberts says. "It's like she's saying, 'This is a weird tradition. What need do women have for reclining nude in chairs in the modern world?' So she took one of Matisse's archetypal nudes and stuck her in the Prohibition era."
After the birth of her two children in 1915 and 1917, Zorach worked in embroidery, making scarves and coverlets when motherhood distracted her from painting. The "too-feminine media" of embroidery strained Zorach's avant-garde reputation as a result, Roberts says.
A similar struggle happened to Helen Torr, a Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts-trained painter who lived on a houseboat docked in Long Island with her artist-husband, Arthur Dove. The cramped quarters of their seaworthy abode yielded 1929's "Houses on a Barge," a dark, surrealistic painting of five slender homes wedged on a shipping barge, but also criticism from art critics, who dismissed her artwork as "imitating" that of her husband.
Meanwhile, Florine Stettheimer, the eldest of these four modernists by 15 years, refused to sell and rarely exhibited her work. She was dismissed for critics for painting too many feminine figures in party scenes and portraits — typically her sisters Carrie and Ettie. Still, her 1921 painting "Spring Sale at Bendel's" is full of humor and chaos, depicting shoppers lunging for clothing-rack sales at a New York department store. Stettheimer's "Painter and Faun" shows the artist in a white dress, seated against a red tree next to a faun.
By far, the most successful artist in this show was O'Keeffe, whose 15 paintings here span her early charcoal drawings to her masterpiece suite of green-and-maroon jack-in-pulpit wildflowers. Eager to escape Stieglitz's marketing of her work as sexually feminine, O'Keeffe decamped from New York to the desert of New Mexico, a move that spawned paintings such as 1932's "Horse's Skull With Pink Rose," showing a fabric flower inserted into an eye socket of the animal's skull.
"O'Keeffe gradually grows more and more confident," Roberts says. "She's really going against Stieglitz's interpretation of her work, and by leaving New York, she's satisfying her own self-expression."
"O'Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York" is on view through May 15 at the Norton Museum of Art, 1451 S. Olive Ave., in West Palm Beach. Admission costs $5-$12. Call 561-832-5196 or go to Norton.org