O'Keeffe, Stettheimer, Torr, Zorach: Women Modernists in New York

February 18 - May 15, 2016



 

O'Keeffe text panel and artwork labels

 

O'Keeffe text panel:

Georgia O'Keeffe

1887-1986

Georgia O'Keeffe became engaged with modernism in the mid-1910s, when she read such texts as Vasily Kandinsky's Concerning the Spiritual in Art (1914) and saw avant-garde works at 291, Alfred Stieglitz's New York gallery. She began using charcoal to create a series of suggestive abstractions that Stieglitz exhibited in 1916. For him, O'Keeffe's art embodied the general essence of women, which was fundamentally sexual. This understanding was antithetical to O'Keeffe's purpose: as a modernist, she sought to convey her individual artistic perspective. Nevertheless, Stieglitz's influence led his interpretation to dominate criticism on O'Keeffe. It also made her work attractive to 1920s Americans, many of whom were worried by women's increasing independence. O'Keeffe became known as the nation's leading woman modernist.

The artist disliked this oversimplification of her work but recognized that it was responsible for her success. To make it clear that her aesthetic was about more than her gender, she returned to figuration, realizing that nonobjective art was more open to being seen in sexual terms. O'Keeffe focused particularly on enlarging flowers in order to examine the abstraction underlying nature. While these paintings' suggestive forms also fell easily within Stieglitz's sexualized reading, her exploration of other subjects, especially modern New York, inspired some critics to appreciate the complexity of her modernism.

O'Keeffe and Stieglitz fell in love and wed in 1924. O'Keeffe was irritated by the obligations of being a wife, which took her away from her art. By 1929 she was completely frustrated and chose to summer in the Southwest rather than with Stieglitz. That region became O'Keeffe's greatest subject in her later career. Although she remained married, from this time on she concentrated on her art above all else.

O'Keeffe had greater confidence in her work and made different choices about how to prioritize her art and family than Zorach, Torr, and Stettheimer, decisions that led to her greater success. Yet she also suffered from having her work viewed through the lens of her gender, and these initial interpretations still affect how her art is seen today. Only if we recognize the multilayered nature of O'Keeffe's work can we understand her true importance to modernism.

 

O'Keeffe labels:

Georgia O'Keeffe
American, 1887-1986
Special No. 39, 1919
Charcoal on paper
The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, 1995
 
O'Keeffe's first modernist works were a series of entirely abstract charcoal drawings that she began in 1915. Special No. 39 typical in that the forms seem to suggest connections to the figurative and simultaneously deny them, asserting themselves as the embodiment of an utterly new nonobjective world. Since O'Keeffe greatly admired dealer Alfred Stieglitz's taste, her friend Anita Pollitzer showed him the drawings. Pollitzer reported that Stieglitz said of them, "Finally a woman on paper." His influence made this gendered view dominate early criticism of O'Keeffe's work.
 
 
Georgia O'Keeffe
American, 1887-1986
Red Flower, 1919
Oil on canvas
Norton Museum of Art, Purchase, The Esther B. O'Keeffe Charitable Foundation, 96.5
 
O'Keeffe was disturbed by her dealer and lover Alfred Stieglitz's interpretation of her work in sexual terms, and so she began painting representational subjects again. Red Flower is one of her earliest paintings of flowers, the subject for which she became most famous. O'Keeffe's magnifying of natural objects makes them seem to oscillate between reality and abstraction, forcing viewers to look at them anew. Yet her flower paintings also lent themselves to Stieglitz's gendered reading, as their blossoms easily suggest the curves and recesses of the female body.
 
 
Georgia O'Keeffe
American, 1887-1986
No. 36 - Special (Nicotine Flower), 1920
Watercolor on paper
Private collection, Courtesy of the Gerald Peters Gallery
 
As this work demonstrates, O'Keeffe used watercolor as well as oil to paint the new subject she was beginning to explore around 1920: flowers. Unlike the depiction in oils such as Red Flower (on view to the right of this work), here the flowers float in the center of the sheet, their unpainted forms defined only by the darker shadows around them. As a result, rather than emphasizing the power of nature as O'Keeffe often did, this watercolor conveys its fragility.
 
 
Georgia O'Keeffe
American, 1887-1986
Jack-in-Pulpit-No. 2, 1930
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1987.58.1
 
 
Georgia O'Keeffe
American, 1887-1986
Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. 3, 1930
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1987.58.2
 
 
Georgia O'Keeffe
American, 1887-1986
Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. IV, 1930
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe,1987.58.3
 
 
Georgia O'Keeffe
American, 1887-1986
Jack-in-Pulpit Abstraction - No. 5, 1930
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1987.58.4
 
 
Georgia O'Keeffe
American, 1887-1986
Jack-in-Pulpit Abstraction - No. VI, 1930
Oil on canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1987.58.5
 
[longer label for entire series]
The Jack-in-the-Pulpit Series
 
Perhaps O'Keeffe's most in-depth investigation of the floral subject matter for which she is most famous occurred in her series of six paintings of a jack-in-the-pulpit, the last five of which are displayed here. In these works, she gradually abstracted the plant down to its essence, capturing the powerful energy underlying nature and addressing the fundamental modernist issues of presence and absence, figure and ground. Depicting a club-shaped spadix extending up through parted petals, these images recall both male and female genitalia and the sex act itself, easily conforming to Alfred Stieglitz's promotion of her work in sexual terms. However, that confrontational sexuality is also what makes them modernist. In a 1927 letter, O'Keeffe asserted that she sought to be "magnificently vulgar" in her art. Modernists sought in part to transgress the boundaries of propriety; furthermore, Sigmund Freud's writings had made early 20th-century Americans preoccupied with frank sexuality, so this was a fundamentally modern subject. Flower paintings such as these allowed O'Keeffe to explore the abstraction inherent in nature, the relationship between reality and abstraction, and the issue of sexuality, all while complying with Stieglitz's idea of her, so that she could continue to promote herself as the country's leading woman modernist.
 
 
Georgia O'Keeffe
American, 1887-1986
Ranchos Church No. 1, 1929
Oil on canvas
Norton Museum of Art, Bequest of R. H. Norton, 53.143
 
In the summer of 1929, O'Keeffe went to New Mexico rather than accompany her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, to his family's home in the Adirondacks. In works such as this, she addressed the distinctive relationship between buildings and the landscape in the Southwest. By depicting the mission of Saint Francis of Assisi in Ranchos de Taos from the back, she emphasized its sculptural form rather than its function as architecture. As she had in her views of New York skyscrapers, she streamlined the church in order to monumentalize it. However, the structure seems to merge into the land rather than rise above it, reflecting the different relationship between human beings and nature in this place.
 
 
 
Georgia O'Keeffe
American, 1887-1986
The White Calico Flower, 1931
Oil on canvas
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, Purchase, 32.26
 
In New Mexico O'Keeffe continued to paint floral subject matter, depicting both living plants and the artificial flowers made in Hispanic and Native American communities. Here, she celebrated the mastery of the artificial flower maker, using her characteristic close-up perspective to showcase the distinctive shape of each cloth petal. The painting's muted palette seems to evoke the sun-bleached desert in which the flower was made. This choice, coupled with the fact that the bloom is fake, would have undercut then-established assumptions about the sexual nature of O'Keeffe's flower paintings.
 
 
Georgia O'Keeffe
American, 1887-1986
Horse's Skull with Pink Rose, 1931
Oil on canvas
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Gift of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation
 
O'Keeffe found bones to be a particularly evocative way to explore the relationship between presence and absence, solid and void. Here, the artist rendered the skull with careful detail, making the viewer recognize its inherent beauty. Such paintings recall the Vanitas tradition in Western art, in which skulls served as a reminder of the transitory nature of existence. The ostensibly lovely rose adds yet another macabre note, since such artificial flowers were traditionally used to adorn altars and graves in the Native American and Hispanic cultures of the Southwest. Suggesting many such conflicting and vaguely sinister meanings through their juxtaposition of common objects, O'Keeffe's bone paintings ally themselves with contemporary Surrealism.

 

O'Keeffe quote for wall:

I want to paint in terms of my own thinking, and feeling the facts and things which men know. One can't paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt, nor can one be an American by going about saying that one is an American. It is necessary to feel America, live America, love America, and then work. I know that many men here in New York think women can't be artists, but we can see and feel and work as they can."
 
-- Georgia O'Keeffe, 1926

 

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