“Aggie,” a portrait of the Georgia O’Keeffe painter Arthur O’Keeffe, asks how well-off people can afford to collect art. In 1973, the artist — the daughter of Claire and John — donated $3 million to the Yale University Art Gallery. With a fraction of that amount, a British documentary director could have made a fuller picture of her life, including some family and professional flashbacks.
Ravi Kapur’s images of her working out in those gymnasiums — to O’Keeffe’s signature winking — succeed.
The human story, however, is fuzzy. Sporadic details about her youth allow us to glimpse the artistic ambitions that color O’Keeffe’s art. (One memorable quote appears at the beginning of the documentary when she cautions: “I do not want to get into art museums and make new types of art. I want to get out of the museums and make fresh paintings.”) Her cousin, Hudson Herman, describes her with a mix of affection and love, but his sister Betsy reflects bitterly when she says the art world ignored O’Keeffe. Her paintings of totem poles get treatment just as basic as her most famous pictures of people: 1:51.
Reality is elusive, too. When the viewer knows that O’Keeffe would have loved a family portrait but that her daughter refuses to do one, the film is of scant interest.
The 1972 donation, the film implies, is just one way of avoiding the art museum. O’Keeffe also built homes for barn cats and horses, bragged about making a 45-mile trip to refill coke cans, and, among other things, appears to have created an underground art magazine that never appeared.
Kapur, it must be said, is not so much uncritical as allusive, preferring phrases such as “surprisingly gorgeous” and “just beautifully, naturally photogenic.” Her daughter seems to have in mind her other father, a writer whom she calls her “son.” Cut there.
Occasionally the film agrees to an inarguable fact — O’Keeffe was once shunned by her eccentric father because of what he called her too-familiar pain; she sold some of her art to pay the bills after the 1949 hurricane — but Kapur avoids exaggerating details and suggests that the pain was baked into the paint.
With a more complete picture, we might have a better picture of why O’Keeffe donated so much art. Art is always tied to poverty, says her friend and photographer. But it is also the only financial source she had for almost her entire life. Eventually, she worked her way up to general-assistant status in the New York art world, but with art-dealer difficulties.
No one stands up to take her side; life on O’Keeffe’s modest Idaho farm was her only comfort. When one of her many lovers disappears, she asks her housekeeper, “Could it have something to do with the work?” More from one of her most memorable paintings appears near the end of the film, confirming that these qualities are true of every artist.
If you can forgive her for a lack of balance, a lot of matters are in good hands. It is clear O’Keeffe adored painting, even in that gym, and the portraits that follow give us a window into her way of seeing.
The film, in fact, is never more than a great deal of art, but at times it can be glimpsed in a museum. It is an artist’s problem — like the kind they deal with at the Marin Museum of Contemporary Art.