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

February 18 - May 15, 2016



 

Selected O'Keeffe images from the exhibition

 

(above: Georgia O'Keeffe, American, 1887-1986, Jack-in-the- Pulpit No. IV, 1930, Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in (101.6 x 76.2 cm). National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1987.58.3 © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington)

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.

 

(above: Georgia O'Keeffe, American, 1887-1986, City Night, 1926, Oil on canvas, 48 x 30 in (122 x 76.2 cm). Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Lent by The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Gift of funds from the Regis Corporation, Mr. and Mrs. W. John Driscoll, the Beim Foundation, the Larsen Fund, and by public subscription. West Palm Beach only. Photo: Bridgeman Images / © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York)

In 1925 O'Keeffe moved to the thirtieth floor of New York's Shelton Hotel, which inspired her to paint the modernizing city. As in her flower paintings, the artist used unusual viewpoints, surprising viewers into looking at her subject anew. Here, the diminutive moon is completely dwarfed by the huge buildings soaring above it. O'Keeffe's dealer and husband, Alfred Stieglitz, disapproved of these works because they did not conform to his promotion of her art as an intuitive expression of female sexuality. Other critics admired them for just this reason. Henry McBride wrote, "The painting is intellectual rather than emotional." O'Keeffe thanked McBride, saying that she was "pleased to have the emotional faucet turned off."

 

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