A cow skull painted fine-grained on canvas stares me down. Georgia O’Keeffe preferred the bones of cattle, skeletons of landscape, desert raw as the average nude. Her first kiss with Alfred Stieglitz must have chilled and grilled them both to the core. As I try to focus on paint rather than picture, museum visitors buff me with great expectations. “Making Modern,” an exhibit that deigns to impress, inhales but refutes or refuses my taste. Although I respect O’Keeffe’s grasp of her arid silence, I prefer the rougher strokes of Arthur Dove, the corrugations of Marsden Hartley, and the tough white factories of Charles Sheeler. Losing face to face, photography recedes from painting, yet retains a grip. Despite the triumph of the imagination, more skulls lurk in the desert to snap at the bare feet of pilgrims determined to meet their animal spirit guides.
A woman folds onto on the bench beside me. She scans a map of the museum and frowns in several shades of violet. She’s making herself modern. I think we’re both in a painting by Stuart Davis, one that will wrestle us to the floor in a tangle of competing forms and clashing hues. I wish O’Keeffe’s derisive skull could masticate Davis’s plastic forms and spit out neat squares of Rothko. Two shades of crimson glowing in a frame of burnt orange. Or electric blue and yellow framed in navy. I lean into my notebook to hide my face from the agony of the new. Stieglitz and O’Keeffe have filtered their sex lives through me, and I may not weather the toxic glow.