Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George

de Young Museum, San Francisco

Written by:
Emily S. Mendel
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Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) has a unique place in American art, not simply because she was an early female artist, or because of the length of her career, but because she painted with an individual aesthetic quality. Bright colors, detailed oversized sensual natural shapes, and a keen sense of place are common denominators of her oeuvre. Her art contains personal and autobiographical depictions.

“Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” the first major show of O’Keeffe’s Lake George works, contains fifty-three of the most luscious, intriguing and innovative paintings of her career. This exhibition is long overdue, since it was during her Lake George period that O’Keeffe was most prolific, creating more than two hundred paintings on canvas and paper, plus sketches and pastels. At Lake George, she also developed new themes that included magnified flowers, fruit, trees, leaves, landscapes and architecture.

Between 1918 until 1934, before O’Keeffe found a haven in New Mexico, she spent large blocks of time honing her talent at the 36-acre family estate of her lover, then husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864‒1946). The estate was situated in the Adirondack Mountains of New York State along glacial Lake George. O’Keeffe found the property a welcome rural respite from her energetic life in New York City. Most of O’Keeffe’s Lake George creations are based on objects or scenery from the Stieglitz estate.

The 1930 gorgeous oil on canvas series of magnified Jack-in-the Pulpits (“Jack-in-Pulpit – No. 2,” “Jack-in-the-Pulpit – No. 3,” “Jack-in-the-Pulpit – No. IV,” and “Jack-in-Pulpit Abstraction – No. 5”) are not to be missed. O’Keeffe first painted the flower as she saw it, and then, with each larger painting, reduced the flower to its abstract essence. O’Keeffe said,

“… [a]t Lake George we had a good many Jack-in-the-Pulpits. My first one was almost photographic. It was about 10×12. And the next one got up to be 30×36. And the next one was 30×40. And in that one the jack got black. Well, then I made an abstract thing of all the different parts of the jack and then it got to be 48 inches high. And then I thought I ought to be able to simplify it more than that, and then I thought well the thing that makes you interested in that flower, and that you wouldn’t look at the flower without, is the jack in the middle of it. So I painted just the jack.”

O’Keeffe gained a reputation, unwarranted in her view, for painting flowers with the essence of female sensuality and genitalia. She attributed this to publicity about Stieglitz’s nude photographs of her, which were shown at his galleries in New York City. O’Keeffe rejected such reductive readings, stating,

“I made you take time to look at what I saw, and when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower, and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see – and I don’t.”

Three appealing 1920 oil still lifes, “Apple Family A,” “Apple Family—2,” and “Dark Red Apples & Tray” were of apples she picked on the estate, to which she added her own version of modernism and meaning. In discussing symbolism in her work, O’Keeffe said, “I find that I have painted my life—things happening in my life—without knowing.” In “Apple Family—2,” for example, it’s thought that O’Keeffe, who was uncomfortable with the large Stieglitz family painted herself as the small green apple, amidst the large red apples.

O’Keeffe’s Lake George period is also known for panoramic landscapes and paintings of architectural subjects, including abstract horizontal paintings of barns and buildings on the Stieglitz property. The exceptional “Barn with Snow” and the evocative “The Red Barns” are standouts.

“There was a fine old barn at the Lake George farmhouse. You could see it from the kitchen window or from the window of Stieglitz’s little sitting room. With much effort I painted a picture of the front part of the barn. I had never painted anything like that before.” —Georgia O’Keeffe, 1976

The deeply personal and thematic “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George” considers the way in which variations in sizes, shapes and colors affect our view of the world. This exhibition was organized by The Hyde Collection of Glens Falls, New York, near Lake George, in association with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Many museums and collectors have lent O’Keeffe’s art for this show. It may not be seen elsewhere. Don’t miss it.

©Emily S. Mendel 2014.    All Rights Reserved

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