I remember when Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was ridiculed and thought to be a minor artist. I could never understand it because I found her so evocative and almost always managed to pique my imagination. This happened again when I saw the Vilcek exhibition though my Missive focused on their collecting.
When people come to town now their first question is always where is the O’Keeffe Museum and why are there not more paintings by the artist on view. To the credit of the current administration the museum is trying to broaden the scope of the Museum and place O’Keeffe in the context of her time. O’Keeffe is very quotable and many interviews have been published. She was married to one of the greatest photographers of all time, Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), and once said, “I believe I would rather have Stieglitz like something - anything I had done - than anyone else I know.” Yet she once claimed that photography had no influence on her career! I would propose exactly the opposite. As Cody Hartley, the O’Keeffe’s Director of Curatorial Affairs and co-curator of the Vilcek show said, “She is a photographer who uses paint.”
I believe we all develop our eye in our own way through influences on our lives. There are various images or thoughts that appeal to us and we see things in those terms. For instance, a beautiful woman or handsome man inform us as to what beauty is and we think of images in those terms, though my wife and I may define those images differently. O’Keeffe also denied that her imagery was sexual, yet often when looking at her flowers many relate the images to the vagina. I remember being at an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum where they showed their O’Keeffe of “Black Iris” from the Stieglitz collection when one young fellow dragged his friend over to see the “private parts” in the painting. “The evil is in the mind of the beholder”
We are influenced by early images that define and refine our view of the world. During her formative years as a painter, 1916 to 1918 O’Keeffe taught at what is today West Texas A&M University. During her stay in the town of Canyon, Texas she would hitch rides, sometimes in a hay wagon, to Palo Duro Canyon. She did a series of water colors there which are now in the Amon Carter Museum but one picture “Red Landscape” 1917 remained behind and is now in the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum at the University. Here you see another of O’Keeffe’s favorite subject, the canyon.
Later on she related this concept to the city. Look at her painting of “A Street” 1926 from the O’Keeffe Museum’s Collection, Gift of The Burnett Foundation, shows the city as a canyon created by the skyscrapers. This picture would fit extremely well into the Vilcek exhibition, Masterworks of American Modernism. Here you have all the feeling of the idealized city through it’s skyscrapers uninterrupted with the cacophony of what is going on down below. It is a bit like going out in New York at dawn before rush hour begins. Even though it is known as the “City that never Sleeps” once in a while it takes a nap!
Now compare it with another painting in the O’Keeffe Museum’s collection, “Untitled (City Night)” from the 1970’s. Here we have a more idealized version of the City but again without the crowds; just the stars above the skyline. It is also indicative of the glimpses that are all you get of the sky in the city. No wonder O’Keeffe loved it in Texas and New Mexico. Just like we feel about the great southwest skies with no obstructions.
Segway to another picture “The White Place – A Memory” 1943 which is in the Vilcek exhibition borrowed from another private collection. There is clearly a relationship between this picture and the city canyons in O’Keeffe’s mind whether she realized it or not.
Now, for one last image, look at a picture from the Vilcek collection. It is called “In the Patio IX”. It too is a canyon like image with blue sky above. So what was O’Keeffe thinking regarding her Patio in the title? Also, if you look at the image another way it looks exactly like an envelope!
We often speak of the artist’s eye and Georgia O’Keeffe gives us plenty of opportunity to study how she looked at the world.