WILLIAMSTOWN — Should we pity poor Ida Ten Eyck O’Keeffe, sister to greatness? Probably, and there are plenty of reasons why.
Yes, if you’re wondering, it’s that O’Keeffe: double ‘f,’ she of the naughty-seeming flower paintings, of the impeccable high-desert Ghost Ranch, of the phone-book-thick media profiles and features in Architectural Digest, and of the near-constant-seeming blockbuster museum exhibitions, the most recent of which, last year, featured her fashion and décor choices. Georgia, every inch of her famous. Ida, drowned in her wake.
Ida chose to paint in the 1920s, following an older sister whose fame was already firmly in place. It shouldn’t surprise that she became engulfed by her renown. Even so, more than a little sympathy is in order. Georgia, feeling threatened on all fronts, did what she could to stifle her sister’s budding career, which makes “Ida O’Keeffe: Escaping Georgia’s Shadow” at the Clark Art Institute a full-blown recovery effort. It’s small — just a couple of dozen works — but not insubstantial. It makes you wonder what might have been.
Ida surely did. In the salty exchanges between siblings to be found in the exhibition catalog, a rich trove of family drama thoroughly researched through the depths of the various libraries that hold the correspondence of the O’Keeffes and Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia’s husband, Ida has choice words for big sister. Sharpest among them, with her frustration reaching its apex in the 1930s, was that she might be famous, too, if she had a Stieglitz by her side. Stieglitz was a titan of American Modernism whose New York gallery gave Georgia a solo exhibition almost every year; the implication that Georgia had not succeeded on her own merits stung more than any other.
Can we separate the work from the drama? Probably not. “Georgia was very much disgusted with [Ida]. She didn’t want anyone to paint but she,” recalled another O’Keeffe sister, Catherine, in the catalog. The exhibition tries to set the art apart. Small rooms gather Ida’s intense canvases in evocative clusters, no mention of Georgia anywhere. But can she really be kept at bay?
One group of paintings both establishes Ida’s own vision — two stark and angular 1938 works, “Ozark Lime Kiln” and “Stargazing in Texas,” seem drained of color, haunting and bleak in pale tones of gray — and stacks her up against her sister’s fame. There’s a luminous little abstract work — artistic ground upon which Georgia herself never trod — composed of a medley of angles and curves refracting color across the surface. But close by, showing Ida’s little painting “Black Lilies,” from 1945, feels almost cruel, given how much of big sister’s fame is built on the big, bold pictures of flowers of every kind. Am I reading big sister’s influence — the delicate curl of petal, the moody dark tones of purple and green? The better question, maybe: Can you not?
The exhibition, organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, makes much of Ida’s “Lighthouse Series,” a group of paintings in which the artist is most truly herself. They’re jubilant — meticulously ordered, with hard shafts of light streaming from the windows or curling into water and mist in jazzy blues, yellows, and grays. One, a departure, is deep crimson and black, sharp-angled and seething. It speaks of a certain kind of confidence — to step outside, to try something new. She had it in her. It was just tamped down.
Why such sibling antipathy? After staying out of the domestic muck for much of the show, “Escaping Georgia’s Shadow” in the final room wades in. A collection of photographs — some by Ida, some by Georgia, some by Stieglitz — shows the two sisters in happier times at Stieglitz’s summer house on Lake George in 1924. There, Ida proved an ebullient counterpoint to the taciturn and withdrawn Georgia, and drew an attention from Stieglitz that seemed more than familial.
Doubt, if there was any, was scant: He flirted incessantly, and she returned his attentions. He wrote letters asking to photograph her naked. He made a photograph of a black crow’s feather pricked into an apple and showed it to her, slyly: “Old Crow” was the nickname he had given himself, “Little Apple” the one he had given her.
That this all took place in front of Georgia might help explain why the relationship deteriorated not long after. Stieglitz was a philanderer; but her own sister? Georgia fell into a depression in 1933 after an aborted mural commission at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, and checked into Manhattan’s Doctors Hospital to be treated for psychoneurosis. That was Feb. 1. Catherine, whose artistic ambitions had been nurtured by her older sister, would open a show of her own paintings in New York on Feb. 27; Ida, too, would show in New York that spring.
Georgia, in increasing despair, demanded that both stop painting immediately. Catherine agreed. Ida would not. From there, the rift grew. Those photos from Lake George presage a darkening family tale. In one, the sisters dine merrily at an outside table, smiles all around. In another, the two look strained and awkward, Ida looking away, Georgia dour and clenched.
Maybe it followed a burst of flirtation from Stieglitz, who was behind the camera. Maybe it was Georgia’s simmering resentment of her sister’s ambitions finding its way to the surface. Whatever the case, Georgia’s bitterness toward her sister never left her. In 1974, Claudia, the fourth O’Keeffe sister, organized a posthumous survey of Ida’s work in Santa Fe, not far from Georgia’s home. The eldest sister was affronted and furious.
Ida had died in 1961 of a stroke, and Claudia felt she had never gotten her due. Georgia, in part, had made sure of that. “In some odd way, it is a wasted life,” Georgia had written to Claudia of Ida, just months before her death. Wasted, you could ask, but by whom?
IDA O’KEEFFE: ESCAPING GEORGIA’S SHADOW
At the Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, extended through Oct. 14. 413-458-2303, www.clarkart.edu