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updated 03/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/07/1988 AT 01:00 AM EST

GEORGIA O'KEEFFE: 1887-1986

She was one of this century's most popular American painters, all but worshiped by many of her followers. Even though she died two years ago at 98, Georgia O'Keeffe's hold on the public remains as strong as ever.

Over the years interest has focused as much on the painter herself—she had a powerful personality, her private life made headlines, and she was a master of subtle self-promotion—as on her art. Now a comprehensive traveling centenary exhibition, opening March 5 at the Art Institute of Chicago, offers an opportunity to consider O'Keeffe's talent rather than her celebrity. (The cult of personality persists; at the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., where the show was mounted, an oversize photograph of the artist, a solitary figure in black striding through her New Mexico ranch-lands, hung at the entrance.) Her art, moving between abstraction and realism, is immediately recognizable, with its images of bleached-white cow skulls, overinflated phallic blooms, clouds and sculptural rocks. For this first major posthumous exhibit, co-curators Jack Cowart, head of 20th-century art at the National Gallery, and Juan Hamilton, O'Keeffe's controversial protégé-heir, selected 120 oils, watercolors and charcoals. More than a third, not recently on public view, are from the artist's estate.

About 12 of O'Keeffe's huge, sexually charged flower paintings are here. They are showy, decorative pieces over which far too much ado has been made. Also on display are three of the vast cloud paintings she completed in her 70s. Curiously chilly works, they lack organic warmth. (By contrast, consider Monet's water lilies, the work of another aging painter.) There are many examples, too, of O'Keeffe's repetitive symbolism, such as her pelvic-bone-against-the-sky series.

Less well-known and far more interesting are the charcoals O'Keeffe executed when she was an art teacher in Columbia, S.C., in 1915, before the glare of publicity stiffened her artistic spontaneity and made her work more formulaic. Organic abstractions, they radiate a female sensibility that O'Keeffe acknowledged. ("At last, a woman on paper!" photographer Alfred Stieglitz exclaimed when he saw these drawings. Stieglitz, who was then head of an avant-garde New York gallery, not only launched O'Keeffe's career but wound up marrying her. His portraits of O'Keeffe were poetic pinups that as much as anything else made her famous.)

Some of O'Keeffe's early watercolors are intensely felt, nearly mystical interpretations of the landscape of the American Southwest. In Evening Star No. IV, 1917, she encircles the star with strong washes of red, banded by strokes of purple and green. There are other pleasant surprises in the show, such as brilliantly colored small-scale paintings of flowers and a number of urban landscapes. In a 1927 oil of the Radiator Building in Manhattan, a playful O'Keeffe painted her husband's name in shimmering red next to the structure's towering black flank. Much of O'Keeffe's work is sterile, however, and that's not just because her landscapes are barren of people. Although they're ostensibly about nature, her paintings often appear denatured, artificially conceived.

O'Keeffe was not a great artist. She was a fine minor painter. As this show reveals, her early promise was blighted by her early success. The exhibit, at the Art Institute through June 19, travels later to the Dallas Museum of Art (July 31-Oct. 16) and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (Nov. 19-Feb. 5, 1989). A catalog by Cowart and Hamilton, Georgia O'Keeffe Arts and Letters (National Gallery of Art, $50; $22 paper), complements the show.

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