Why You Should Go See O'Keeffe at the de Young Museum
By: Charlotte Patterson
From 1918 until the early 1930s, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) retreated annually to the family estate of the photographer and pioneering modernist art dealer Alfred Stieglitz (whom she married in 1924) on the shores of Lake George, nestled in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. During this highly productive period, O’Keeffe created more than 200 paintings on canvas and paper, in addition to sketches and pastels, making the Lake George years among the most prolific and transformative of her eight-decade career. Showcasing approximately 50 of these works, Modern Nature: Georgia O'Keeffe and Lake George is the first exhibition to examine this extraordinary body of work, which is considered critical to the development of her signature style of modernism and abstraction.
Along the western shore of this 32-mile-long glacial “Queen of American Lakes,” O’Keeffe found a place to develop her work without the distractions of her life in New York City. She enjoyed long walks on its wooded hillsides and hikes up Prospect Mountain to take in the spectacular panoramic view of the lake’s mountain-rimmed waters—a vantage point that inspired several works in the exhibition. Lake George served as a rural retreat for the artist, providing the basic material for her art, which in turn evoked the spirit of place that was essential to O’Keeffe’s modern approach to the natural world.
In 1923, she enthusiastically wrote to her friend, the writer Sherwood Anderson, “I wish you could see the place here—there is something so perfect about the mountains and the lake and the trees—Sometimes I want to tear it all to pieces—it seems so perfect—but it is really lovely—And when the household is in good running order—and I feel free to work it is very nice.”
Like many artists of her generation and earlier ones, O’Keeffe painted in the country throughout the summer and fall and transported canvases back to her New York studio for completion and exhibition in the spring. In her humble studio, nicknamed the “shanty,” O’Keeffe reveled in the discovery of new subjects that included landscapes, flowers, fruit, trees, leaves, and architecture.
Modern Nature explores the full range of the work she produced at Lake George—including magnified botanical compositions inspired by the flowers and vegetables that she grew in her garden, as well as the apples and pears that she picked on the property. O’Keeffe became fascinated by the variety of trees—cedars, maples, poplars, and birches—that grew in abundance at Lake George, and she created works based on them featuring telescopic views of a single leaf or pairs of overlapping leaves. Architectural subjects, including the weathered barns and buildings on the Stieglitz property, introduced geometry into her otherwise organic works, while panoramic landscape views of the lake and surrounding hills strongly influenced the vantages and perspectives she would adopt for her subsequent work in New Mexico.
O’Keeffe often worked in series to explore a motif in depth, rendering a natural object in increasingly abstract terms with each successive interpretation, and often zooming in on and monumentalizing minute elements of her subjects. Her serial images of apples, leaves, and trees constitute a composite “portrait” of these subjects that seeks to capture not merely their outward appearance, but also their inner nature.
During this period, O’Keeffe also made paintings of various sizes that focused on the centers of flowers, which she continued to produce for decades. A highlight of the exhibition is a treasure of the de Young’s permanent collection, Petunias (1925), in which O’Keeffe’s magnified and abstracted view of the flowers disorients their viewers. Elaborating on the scale of her flower paintings, O’Keeffe remarked, “So I said to myself—I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it—I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.” Often cosmic in scope but intimate in rendering, works such as this compel the viewer to adopt a heightened state of sensitivity to universal truths in nature—and in art.
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