Southern Art–George E. Ohr, Walter Anderson, Georgia O’Keefe
RT will confess, right at the get-go, that he doesn’t know much about Southern art. For reasons he’s never bothered to figure out, his art education has focused on the achievements of New York City’s art culture. NYC, art capital of the nation? Well, certainly by volume of output, anyway.
Part of the problem, now that he thinks about it, is that the type of art produced in the United States varies (along with so much else) by geographic location: artists in the north have tended to produce minimalist and conceptual work; artists in the south, representational work. And of course there are plenty of exceptions to what might be called RT’s 12:03 am Rule. But RT’s limited impression tells him that a certain longing for old-fashioned sensuousness and bright colors characterizes the work of those who feel the influence of the Gulf of Mexico’s tropical waters.
For instance, meet George E. Ohr–the self-styled “mad potter of Biloxi.” Harbinger of avant-garde sculpture, seeker of new and more ravishing glazes, superb technician (he seems to have been all three), Ohr (1857-1918) was indisputably one of the most creative souls America has produced so far. His pottery broke with the prevailing standards of the time by experimenting with form in a way that had never been attempted before. Fun is certainly one of Ohr’s themes. But his spontaneity and sheer joy in experimentation is tempered by technical skill and finesse–attempts to recreate his glazes have not met with success. And you have to admire Ohr’s brio; by the standards of his time, the crushed and oddly shaped ceramic objects he produced went way beyond “flaky.” The mad potter was pursuing a new kind of beauty, even (getting mathematical per RT’s recent post), exploring space.
Here’s another southern artist to take seriously: Walter Anderson (1903-1965), a multi-talented individual who lived in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Anderson was a writer, painter, and naturalist who studied at the NY School of Fine and Applied Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts before working as a designer at the family pottery, Shearwater Pottery, Anderson executed several large-scale works during the 1930s before suffering a nervous breakdown in 1938 followed by psychotic episodes. Whether this was caused by malaria and undulant fever or an underlying psychiatric condition has never been determined. Despite his hospitalizations, he managed to visit China in 1948. Anderson’s paintings are inviting, leave a dream-like, colorful impression, and deal with a wide range of subject matter–they reflect his encounters with the sublime.
Last but not least is Georgia O’Keefe. Yes, she was born in Wisconsin, yes she lived in New York City and Taos, New Mexico, but she also spent three summers at the University of Virginia. where, influenced by the ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow, she began to paint again after a hiatus of four years. Her time as head of the Art Department at West Texas A&M University in 1916-1918 was another important influence on her work. Despite the many other sources of O’Keefe’s work acquired while she traveled across the United States (including Hawaii), her mature painting retains the quality of lucidity that seems to characterize southern art.
The crashiest of crash courses? Maybe, but RT hopes that reading about these three artists will inspire readers to explore southern art in greater depth. RT
RT’s Related Posts: The Vogels: Collecting Art as if Your Life Depended on It.