Exploring the Work of 10 Mostly Misunderstood Artists

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Today would have been Georgia O’Keeffe’s 124th birthday. As one of the first women to break into the male dominated scene, her contributions to 20th century art history are unquestionable. She mesmerized with her gorgeously surreal New Mexico landscapes and stark New York cityscapes, but, somehow, her name has become synonymous with vaginal flowers. This they were not. How unfortunate. To celebrate the misunderstood artist and her woes, we’ve rounded up a few incidents of misinterpretation from the lives of famed big shots, elder greats, and new, spunky contemporaries. Find out what Georgia O’Keeffe’s flowers truly mean, why Francis Bacon really thrust a syringe into his subject’s arm, and why people who don’t get James Franco are “morons.”

Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe consistently battled against the Freudian interpretations of her flower series. Alike to macro-photography, these paintings glanced deep into the exquisite crevices of orchids and calla lilies, dove inside along the sensuously open petals… wait, stop, sorry, sorry! Flowers. They are just flowers. With Judy Chicago, the feminist art movement of the 1970s attempted to commandeer O’Keeffe for her “feminine iconography,” but she refused to collaborate with them on any projects. Biologically, the centers of flowers are androgynous, not feminine, alright? These flowers were not painted in praise of labia, conversely, these ravenous views are tributes to the sensual forces and ecstasy of nature itself. You perverts.

Robert Longo

Even Robert Longo’s Wikipedia page calls his signature ’80s graphite series Men in Cities “businessmen writhing in contorted emotion.” Oh no, no, no. Regardless of how many times Longo has said that “this is how you dressed if you were in a band,” the yuppies-in-rapture misinterpretation keeps floating up. In part, the myth was perpetuated by a Men in Cities lithograph on Patrick Bateman’s immaculate apartment wall in American Psycho, albeit it was intentionally too hip for him. More appropriately, the skinny-tied gents appeared on the cover of Glenn Branca’s Ascension , the avant-garde antithesis to Bateman’s beloved Huey Lewis and the News.

James Franco

“I don’t think what I’m doing is confusing,” actor-turned-artist Franco recently told Flaunt Magazine. His Rebel Without a Cause project, for example, involves a drunken, dirty-talking, reverse gender orgy with sex dolls and dildos, loosely based on the backstage drama between Dennis Hopper, director Nicholas Ray, and Natalie Wood. “What is confusing is that I’m an actor in mainstream film and the people that usually comment on mainstream film are idiots, and they don’t try to think outside of their pop-culture commentaries. It’s so easy to criticize contemporary art from the outside: ‘Douglas Gordon slowed down Psycho so it’s 24 hours long? That’s easy! I can do that.’ That’s how the morons in the blogosphere try to critique my work… I like that they are confused. I like that they make fun of what I’m doing. It’s a beautiful reflection of where our culture is at the moment.”

Henry Darger

After timid Chicago custodian Henry Darger died in 1973 at 81, tomes and tomes of his tightly-typed journals and manuscripts were uncovered from his dusty room. Most notable was the manuscript for a 15,145 page novel The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion — complete with illustrations of epic battles, butterfly shift-shapers, and Christian-themed martyrdom of child warriors, their shapes retraced from magazines and coloring books. These illustrations now hang at art galleries, so, naturally, they’re open to misinterpretations, like that the little girls had male genitalia for some sort of metaphorical reason. More likely, Darger just didn’t really know or care what the anatomically appropriate alternative would have been.

Francis Bacon

Speaking of overt visuals, Francis Bacon’s Lying Figure With Hypodermic Syringe (1963) is not, as it appears to be, an overdose or a narrative of drug addiction. Bacon says: “I’ve used the figures lying on beds with a hypodermic syringe as a form of nailing the image more strongly into reality or appearance. I don’t put the syringe because of the drug that’s being injected but because it’s less stupid than putting a nail through the arm, which would be even more melodramatic. I put the syringe because I want a nailing of the flesh onto the bed.”

Vincent Van Gogh

Cut your ear off, and you’re forever branded as a crazy artist who sees color swifts in a starry night because you’re so crazy. Sure, Vincent Van Gogh battled a volatile mental state, but he lived a rich inner life of ravenous intellectualism. He was well-rounded and well-read and wrote extensively about art and his intent. Speaking of Starry Night, in all its deliberate strangeness: “Where these lines are close and deliberate it begins to be a picture, even if it is exaggerated. That is a little what Bernard and Gauguin feel, they do not ask the correct shape of a tree at all, but they insist absolutely that one can say if the shape is round or square – and my word, they are right, exasperated as they are by certain people’s photographic and empty perfection. Certainly they will not ask the correct tone of the mountains, but they will say: In the Name of God, the mountains were blue, were they? Then chuck on some blue and don’t go telling me that it was a blue rather like this or that, it was blue, wasn’t it? Good – make them blue and it’s enough!”

Mark Rothko

The sentiment of this canvas of bright yellows and reds is often misinterpreted for optimism. Rothko had insisted it was tragedy. It takes recalling the grizzly details of his suicide in 1970 to forever implant the appropriate interpretation: He was found by his assistant, slumped on the floor by the sink in his studio, covered in blood, his wrists split.

Van Eyck

The 1434 portrait of The Arnolfini Wedding by early Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck is so replete with signifying details — from the cherry tree in the window to the cast-aside patten clogs to the position of the couples’ feet — there’s a discourse of debate, but let’s get one thing settled. Giovanna Cenami was no pregnant bride. The more cloth a merchant’s wife wore, the wealthier she appeared, so this is just a very trendy layered look coupled with the two’s desire for fertility and progeny. In fact, Mrs. Arnolfini died childless.

David Wojnarowicz

Doesn’t it feel like Christmas when a New York City tabloid is yelling “CRUCIFIX OUTRAGE B’klyn Museum to host show brand sacrilegious” on its cover? Yes, this again. Last year, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery gave into pressure from conservatives and pulled David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire In My Belly from their queer art retrospective because of a few second flash on an ant-covered crucifix. Now that the HIDE/SEEK exhibit is heading to the Brooklyn Museum, the “outrage” is back again.

Obviously, this was not a war on Christmas. Nor was it anti-Catholic, and, actually, it was not just about “the suffering, marginalization and physical decay of those who were afflicted with AIDS” either. In 1986 and 1987, Wojnarowiczi watched his mentor, the photographer Peter Hujar die from the disease and, himself raised Catholic, believed that “the Roman Catholic Church had abandoned everyone he loved.” According to close friends, he was having a crisis of faith. The abridged and edited version of the piece made by the P.P.O.W. gallery was remixed with ACT UP protests audio, emphasizing select imagery and motives, but it was not, as misunderstood by some, about Wojnarowiczi’s own suffering from AIDS. The originally silent piece was made in 1986, before he was diagnosed. Filmed in Mexico — the surreal, strobed video collage of wrestlers, cock fights, beggars, cripples, a burning spinning globe, a sewn together loaf of bread — painted “Mexico as a grinding machine of poverty and cruel spectacle,” echoing his theme of the Church’s abandonment of the suffering, its betrayal, and hypocrisy, weighing into this love/hate relationship with Catholicism.

Banksy’s Mr Brainwash

Gosh, do we really have to get into this? It’s a little bit baffling how many people think that Mr Brainwash is for real. Yes, there was an unknown “street artist” whose Warholian factory endeavors catapulted him into a cloud of hype and fruited an immense number of popular, mostly terrible, amusing works. Yet, much of that was being played up by Banksy’s “documentary” Exit Through the Gift Shop. The ostentatious sales figures, for example, which can be challenged with a browse of the real auction numbers. A documentary about mysterious hype breeding said hype? How meta.