Issue #61


In analyzing kinships and differences between Frank Lloyd Wright's reflection of modernism in his designs of homes and Georgia O'Keeffe's expression of modernism in her paintings, one cannot help but imagine a theory of unified modernism that penetrates the works of these two artists and binds the two together thematically. This "unified modernism theory" may be a concatenation of several effects: a radical simplification of objects through an economical use of line and form; an achievement of unity by a sparse use of color, or a repetition of a color; juxtaposition of symmetrical or asymmetrical forms; or even a radical disorientation of the perceived object. Any such theory must include, however, a notion of "plasticity;" that is, a confusion between accepted boundaries. Most notably, this confusion occurs between the notions of "inside" and "outside." This ambiguity is inherently designed to slow down the "reading" of an object or painting, but not be so overwrought so as to have the underlying concept disappear.

To apply these generalizations to specifics, consider O'Keefe's White Canadian Barn II.

The barn has been distilled through O'Keeffe's artifice to not a "realist" representation of a "barn," but rather a modernist purification that evokes a barn to the viewer. The barn represented has an almost perfect bilateral symmetry; this lends an organic feel to the object as such symmetry is usually the province of organisms and seldom occurs in man-made objects. The whiteness of the walls is unmarked by stains or weathering; it is broken only by the doorway and the larger barn doors which are a rich blue. This blue conjures the blue of the sky and its inherent mysteries. After a prolonged viewing, the barn begins to metamorphosize into an almost skull-like form; its white color and socket-like doorways enhance this effect. This further intensifies the organic feel of the painting.

There is no doubt that this is a simplified image, with the eye drawn to the detail-obscuring darkness of the barn doors. With such economy of form and the reposeful horizontality of the barn itself, the mind of the viewer asserts itslef to intervene for the artist and apply its own reasons or definitions to the forms or symbols it perceives. Another way of communicating unity... not necessarily compositional unity, but a unity of forms, like Wright's prairie-like homes.

Consider, now, the Keyes House, as designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Dominating the lines of the house is that same horizontality of the O'Keeffe painting. Wright takes pride in perceiving the horizontal line as the earth line of human life, and thought it important to extend the horizontal as it was the line of repose. This extension simplifies the form of the house by rendering it, in plan, almost perfectly rectangular. An almost heretical simplification (removal of walls) renders the kitchen, dining area, and living rooms into one great social room where all of the home's activities (exclusive of sleeping) may take place. A unity of the publiC and the private ensues. Even a unity of "inside" and "outside" is achieved through a combination of plan and materials. The living room opens onto a partially sheltered terrace, blurring the boundaries between socializing within the enclosure of the house proper or outside "out-of-doors" but still under its protective roof. The copious use of glass around the perimeter of the house provides a visual access to the natural world outside.

So, modernism can be said to be the radical simplification of form; a distillation of form to lines. It is through this effect that the profound kinship between Georgia O'Keeffe and Frank lloyd Wright can be perceived. The two can be joined even philosophically: Wright has written that after he had designed a home and it had been constructed, the clients refurbished with their old furniture and he found his homes painful to view after his clients literally brought in their own baggage. This can be juxtaposed and shown analogous to O'Keeffe's suffering the pre-conceived notions a viewer would bring to her paintings which would obviously distort a "true" reading. O' Keeffe would probably accept Wright's famous statement "'Form follows function' is mere dogma until you realize the higher truth that form and function are one." Certainly, she would see nothing but kinship with his notion of the distillation of form to line and an echo of her choices of color with his insistence on materials inviolate.

Which, you know, is a really long-winded way of bringing academic scrutiny to two great tastes that shouldn't taste great together. Why, that's like comparing Alex Toth's Zorro to Bill Sienkiewicz' Elektra: Assassin. Or analyzing the societal impact of Identity Crisis. Somebody somewhere can write it, and somebody somewhere might find value in it, but academic analysis of entertainment seems to me to be putting a dress on a pig. The dress gets dirty and it annoys the pig. Nobody's happy.

So no "Best of 2004" from me, this year. Everybody did the work, and somebody somewhere got entertained, and that's what putting lines on paper is all about.

See you next year.

Mail about this column can be sent to larry@comicbookresources.com

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