Editor's note: The Portland Museum of Art provided source material to Resource Library for the following article or essay. If you have questions or comments regarding the source material, please contact the Portland Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:


Georgia O'Keeffe and the Camera: The Art of Identity

June 12 - September 7, 2008


Selected wall texts from the exhibition

Introduction (Great Hall-silkscreen)
When Alfred Stieglitz first showed Georgia O'Keeffe's work in New York in 1916 at his famous avant-garde art gallery, 291, she was virtually unknown as an artist. By the time of her death, 70 years later, she was among the most famous people in America. This exhibition explores the essential role that photography played in establishing her reputation, promoting her career, and creating her public persona. While any discussion of O'Keeffe and photography must necessarily begin with Stieglitz in New York, it is also important to examine the artist's concerted efforts to develop and maintain friendships with other photographers before and after she moved to New Mexico in 1949. O'Keeffe cultivated relationships with Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Todd Webb, who visited her in New Mexico at Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu; and she sat for numerous celebrity portraits photographers such as Irving Penn, Yousuf Karsh, and Arnold Newman. By looking at the ways in which her art was reproduced and her personal life discussed in the popular press, we gain insight into the details of a public persona that she carefully crafted and was especially successful at promoting. Photographs of the artist alone in the rugged landscape, of her traditional adobe homes, and her image as a venerable older woman convey strength, independence, and a strong will. O'Keeffe was among the first modernists in America to understand the power of the photograph to shape perceptions of an artist's career.
This exhibition was organized with the generous support of Scott and Isabel Black, Bank of America, and The Bear Bookshop, Marlboro, Vermont. Media support from from WCSH 6 and the Portland Press Herald.
TXG Panels - paper mounted to panels
Section 1:

O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Interpreting Her Early Work

From the beginning, O'Keeffe's professional and personal lives were inexorably entwined with the needs and desires of the photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946). Over the course of almost thirty years, he played many important roles in her life. By 1916 he was her artistic mentor and dealer; in 1918 he became her lover; and they married in 1924. Between 1917 and 1934, he took over 340 portraits of her, including images of her standing in front of her art, studies of her elegant hands, and, most provocatively, of O'Keeffe posing in the nude. Stieglitz's photographs, especially the more sensual images, led to early critical interpretations of her abstract art as rooted in her sexuality and her persona as that of a sexually liberated being.
Section 2:

O'Keeffe in the 1920s and 1930s: Changing Perceptions

In the mid-1920s, reacting against the sexual interpretations of her art, O'Keeffe shifted the emphasis in her work away from abstraction toward representation. To deflect such criticism rooted in her personal life, she began to paint recognizable flowers, still-life subjects, and cityscapes. In 1929, she spent three months in Taos, New Mexico, in search of new subjects and inspiration. While she was there, she met the photographer Ansel Adams, who would later become a friend and visitor to her home at Ghost Ranch. During the 1930s, O'Keeffe split her time between New York, where Stieglitz continued to show and sell her paintings, and New Mexico, where she was becoming increasingly committed to the simple forms of the indigenous architecture and the distinctly rugged and barren landscape.
Section 3:

O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Moving to New Mexico

In 1934, O'Keeffe first rented, and later bought, a small house at Ghost Ranch , a remote guest ranch northwest of Santa Fe. During most of the 1930s and 1940s, she would return there each summer to paint, hike, and explore the nearby landscape. Although it was isolated, she often had visitors, among them Ansel Adams and the photography collector and Museum of Modern Art patron, David McAlpin. Through Stieglitz, O'Keeffe became friends with other photographers, such as Eliot Porter, Arnold Newman, and Todd Webb who photographed her life in New Mexico -- daily activities, her houses, and the dramatic landscape that surrounded them. In 1945 O'Keeffe bought an abandoned hacienda in the nearby village at Abiquiu, which she restored and where she moved in 1949, three years after Stieglitz's death. For the next 37 years, she divided her time between her houses at Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu, maintaining studios in both locations.
Section 4:

O'Keeffe and the Popular Press: Creating a New Persona

Throughout her career, Georgia O'Keeffe maintained a frequent presence in the popular press. Her early paintings were discussed by critics in women's magazines such as Vanity Fair (1922), Vogue (1923), and McCall's (1927). There were reviews of her major exhibitions in many news magazines, including Time (1946 and 1970) and The National Observer (1966), and a long essay about her life in The New Yorker (1974). Among the most popular and most profusely illustrated articles about O'Keeffe appeared in Life magazine (1938 and 1968), which provided its readers with a detailed look at her Southwestern lifestyle. She opened her home to photojournalists such as John Loengard and George Daniell, and art photographers such as Laura Gilpin and Myron Wood. Their photographs of O'Keeffe were published in articles and books filled with images of her studio, adobe walls adorned with her art, her collections of rocks and dried bones, and portraits of the aging artist, who seemed more self-assured and elegant as she aged.
Section 5:

O'Keeffe and Modern Design: Returning to the Abstract

Late in life, O'Keeffe provided access to several photographers who concentrated on presenting her art within the context of the house in Abiquiu. Simply crafted, it contained elements of both Southwest architecture and modern design. The houses itself was built with traditional adobe walls and vigas, or wooden ceiling supports. But O'Keeffe added large picture windows in her studio and living room to take in the views of her garden and the Chama River Valley that bordered the village. The integration of interior and exterior was an architectural design principle that she absorbed from Frank Lloyd Wright, whose homes in her native Wisconsin and in neighboring Arizona she much admired. O'Keeffe's spare furnishings included Navajo rugs, a simple plywood dining table, and banquettes decorated with muslin-covered cushions she designed herself. The living room was furnished with chairs designed by Harry Bertoia and Charles and Ray Eames, along with her collection of rocks, sparingly displayed on tabletops and in bookcases. The few paintings featured in these architecturally-oriented stories were her late abstract landscapes.
Section 6:

O'Keeffe and Fame: Ruling the Art World

Georgia O'Keeffe and Andy Warhol seem an unlikely pair, yet the doyenne of early modernism and the paragon of Pop Art were both aware of the importance of audience. Beginning in the 1940s, O'Keeffe sat for some of the most noted celebrity photographers in America -- Irving Penn, Yousuf Karsh, Arnold Newman, and Philippe Halsman. Warhol published a print of the artist based on his 1979 Polaroid portrait of her, and she later consented at the age of 96 to be interviewed by him for his magazine about contemporary culture.
Many a museum shop sells a wooden ruler that includes O'Keeffe and Warhol as the only Americans among its list of famous 20th-century artists. And finally, in a bit of contemporary pop culture that the abstemious O'Keeffe would have surely disapproved, John Loengard's Life magazine portrait of her now graces Klein's Deli and Coffee Bar, a fast-food counter on one of the concourses at the San Francisco airport. They sell sandwiches names for famous women -- Esther Williams, Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Frida Kahlo -- and the Georgia O'Keeffe, an overstuffed concoction of turkey, ham, and cheese.

To return to the article for the exhibition please click here.

To view the checklist for the exhibition please click here.

To read the catalogue essay for the exhibition please click here.

To read Resource Library editor's notes please click here.

Search Resource Library for thousands of articles and essays on American art.

Copyright 2008 Traditional Fine Arts Organization, Inc., an Arizona nonprofit corporation. All rights reserved.