23 February 2016
Review of Cow’s Skull: Red, White, and Blue, 1931 by Georgia O’Keeffe
Simplicity. Far from simple, my life thrives with busyness, but realism, beauty and simplicity are my ideal lifestyle and aesthetic. That may be why I’m drawn to Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. Or maybe because my personal artwork was compared to hers so I pretended I liked it. While O’Keeffe may/may-not have had daily straining, we both assimilate how the earth is and what it should be. Therefore, I have been “collecting” O’Keeffe’s work through numerous museums.
After learning the techniques of traditional realist painting from school, Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstraction actually blossomed further onto her canvases. Similar to myself, she grew up in the Midwest and moved to New York City. However in 1949, O’Keeffe spent two decades in New Mexico. Creating a deep perspective on the southwestern environment and culture, she was encouraged as a quintessential American Modernist who sought a distinctive view of America. There, her paintings flourished in life while responding with refinery, thus creating a new identity for a vast country and her vast artistic inspirations. This is made apparent by her transitions of industrialization and flowers to natural landscapes and animal remains.
My continuous observations of O’Keeffe from one museum to the next are actually very simple due to Georgia O’Keeffe’s value range, simplicity, and motif of inspirations that ceaselessly trademark her work. So when wandering at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City for a different intention, I still had to pause to acknowledge an old friend. Cow’s Skull: Red, White and Blue, 1931. It’s boldness and complexity vs. simplicity are what distinguish this piece from surrounding paintings. Centered as the focal point is the Cow’s skull. With intricate details and defined value ranges, the cow’s remains imply a Christian replica of Jesus Christ on the cross, or in terms of this country, the enduring spirit of America. This distinguished subject is normally contrasted to a more natural landscape in her other works.
Immediately, I found Cow’s Skull: Red, White and Blue very fascinating because of the striking similarity to my subjectively favorite piece, Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses. This new skull hovers aggressively against this fluid and very bold moving background, while the layered Roses piece sits on layers of monotone rock. Also, the mood conveyed is very polarized. The Met’s painting is striking, intense, and patriotic, unlike the Art Institute’s painting is delicate, spiritual, yet juxtaposing. Even the painting techniques, both oil on canvas, can be closely examined to extinguish differences. One example being, the jaggedness of the deteriorating bones that creates more/less value ranges. Another example being, longer and smoother brush strokes to create a rhythmic background, than a patted/sponge like technique. Yes, the fierceness of Cow’s Skull: Red, White and Blue is well accomplished, it also felt disjointed from her true mood of serenity and appreciation. Even having a starch, red border differentiated this painting from the rest of her full-bleed canvases. These stylistic decisions of this piece, still somehow made me covet my original Cow’s Skull with Calico Roses, a delicate irony of death and new life.
Feeling more like a cousin than a sister towards Cow’s Skull: Red, White and Blue, the distance led me to question O’Keeffe’s intentions and inspirations. Unlike her common neutral palette of colors (with the exception of her vivacious les fleurs) this piece’s colors alone made statements. Commonly, her material is what made her an American icon and not Red, White and Blue. In this case, she said she made it as a joke on the concept of the “Great American Painting.” Unfortunately for her, it is quite apparent. This piece lacks her tenacious voice of curiosity and beauty. Its impact expires rather quickly because of the lack of information given and stereotypical color decisions. Yes, it may make for a great replicated art poster, but AMERICA trumps O’Keeffe’s artistic identity of independence and observation.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s 1931 quintessential icon of the American West may have struck a cord over The Metropolitan Museum by being the only piece on a single wall, however, the isolation to her other paintings is not apparent solely by placement, but by the lack of her individuality. With much appreciation to the craftsmanship of value, movement and balance, I do enjoy this piece. Unfortunately with my personal collection of her works, Cow’s Skull: Red, White and Blue simply does not meet the standards of the other valiant works. Georgia O’Keeffe made the decision to be very simplistic with this particular skull, but somehow this decision of simplicity concluded as safe.