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The faces of meaning

Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of flowers are unlike any others. That she greatly enlarges them is the most immediately obvious thing; that she sees them virtually as landscapes (as a nectar-hunting insect might explore them) becomes evident when they are set next to her paintings of landscapes - hills, rivers, canyons. Her ''White Trumpet Flower,'' though it may well have been painted from life, has undergone a transformation into her characteristic and highly individual paint-language of folds, creases, curves, recesses, and undulations. It is a language that can relate as convincingly to the geological as to the botanical.

I take this flower to be a convolvulus: but this painting is a case of observation at the service of a vision which lifts essences out of specifics. In its large, space-filling beauty, in its linear rhythms that almost literally dance around the confines of the canvas (rather like Matisse's ''The Dance''), in the plunging and precipitous depths of the funnel-shaped corolla, in its smoothed lights and shadows - in all these qualities it is no longer a particular specimen, but has become something of all trumpet-shaped flowers; and it is not so much a species as a representation in paint of the mystery and openness of natural formations.

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Its white belongs to the convolvulus, but equally to the expressive white of paint itself, to the white of shells, and to the blanched, bleached white of desert-stripped bones and skulls - also forms which this American artist has found an inspiration for her painting.

Many of O'Keeffe's paintings are of experiences subjected to the vividness and selectivity of memory. She has painted night, for example, in just this way: a moment, or an atmosphere, seen in darkness must of necessity be painted afterward, in light. This process seems to have encouraged her tendency to stylize or ''abstract'' forms and colours, and it has been integral to the way in which she has painted flowers. It has enabled her to make a visual leap from the too-familiar and small to the unfamiliar and large: surprising the viewer, as she put it, ''into taking time to look.'' She apparently found, however, that , because ''everyone has many associations with a flower - the idea of flowers, '' people saw in her flower paintings all sorts of things that she herself did not.

She paints ''The White Trumpet Flower'' almost as though she were simultaneously looking at another and different phenomenon, a parallel form of strange universality, both tangible and intangible. She does not separate the object, though, from the abstract character of her painting: the two are integrated. ''Objective painting,'' she has written, ''is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or a tree. It is line and colours put together so that they say something. For me that is the very basis of painting. The abstraction is often the most definite form for the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint.''

Similarly it is apparent that a flower can inspire, but it cannot make the line and colour of a painting. That is the function of the artist's own vision and hand, and in this sense Georgia O'Keeffe's flower paintings, though she has (very rarely) painted people, have the insights of self-portraiture. The ''convolvulus'' has become an ''O'Keeffe.'' Her flowers also, as epitomized by a fine example like ''The White Trumpet Flower,'' look outward, like radar disks, facing incalculable immensities of space, and of meaning.

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