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Georgia O’Keeffe @ de Young Museum

Lake George with White Birtch, 1921, oil on canvas

The de Young Museum’s “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George” opens with a larger-than-life palladium portrait by photographer Alfred Stieglitz of a quizzical, androgynous, and seemingly wise Georgia O’Keeffe.  Enter O’Keeffe, Stieglitz’s lover and later wife, half of one of the legendary couples of 20th century American art, on stage while O’Keeffe, the painter, waits in the wings.  

In gallery two, enter O’Keeffe, the painter, on such intimate terms with her subjects that some can be read as surrogates for the artist, Stieglitz, and their entourage.  Lurking in Apple Family II, we’re told, may be the large and loquacious Stieglitz clan, at whose Lake George, New York estate the couple summered each year from 1918 to 1934 but in whose midst O’Keeffe often felt like an outsider.  (O’Keeffe is presumably the shriveled apple in the lower left corner.)  And Brown and Tan Leaves, depicting three magnified leaves, could be interpreted as a symbolic portrait of husband, wife, and Dorothy Norman, Stieglitz’s young lover and protégée.  It was painted in 1928, at the beginning of the long autumn of the artist’s marriage.  Here the ghost of another O’Keeffe emerges: the O’Keeffe who fled an impossibly complex situation on the East Coast to reinvent herself in New Mexico as the black-clad and self-sufficient painter of mesas and bones.  Her myth is such that O’Keeffe’s Lake George period is, in the popular imagination, prequel to the years in Abiquiu.  In more ways than one, it’s a crowded exhibition. 
Alfred Stieglitz, George O'Keeffe, 1920/1922

The irresistible tug of O’Keeffe lore is surely not the only reason for its wide appeal.  Another is our Google-eyed nostalgia for the wholeness of place, time, and attention that informs O’Keeffe’s work: for isolation (or the illusion thereof), for long summers that are quintessentially different from the rest of the year, and for the intense engagement with the natural world that was her great gift to her art.  Only two hundred miles from Manhattan, Lake George, the village, was hopping with tourists even back then, but, with one or two exceptions, there is no evidence of them in O’Keeffe’s paintings.  She also ignored the area’s substantial cultural and artistic heritage, which is the focus of the exhibition’s first gallery.  Confronted with the mysteries of a jack-in-the pulpit or a forested slope, she was finally and blissfully alone with the “feeling of infinity on the horizon line or just over the next hill.” 

Co-organized by Erin B. Coe, chief curator of the Hyde Collection in Glens Falls, New York, and Barbara Buhler Lynes, former curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George” attempts to undo critical and popular neglect of O’Keeffe’s Lake George period and to give full credit for the work to O’Keeffe alone.  “The exhibition and catalogue mark the first time that O’Keeffe’s Lake George work has been seen as separate from rather than solely the product of a union between two creative souls,” writes Coe in the exhibition catalogue, referring to the fact that O’Keeffe’s work has been viewed rightly but too exclusively in terms of a visual dialog with Stieglitz’s.  One wishes the exhibition did that as forcefully as Coe’s catalogue essay.  Instead it tries to have it both ways.     
Brown and Tan Leaves, 1928, oil on canvas

The exhibition’s Stieglitz photographs (five portraits of O’Keeffe plus three studies of subjects the two artists shared), though stunning, might have been cut down to supporting material size.  And why no examples of the floral images from Luther Burbank catalogues that Coe’s essay cites as a major influence on O’Keeffe’s iconic botanical images?  Georgia O’Keeffe devoted long hours to gardening with the Stieglitzes’ caretaker, Donald Davidson, a devotee of horticulturalist Luther Burbank.  Burbank stressed parallels between horticulture and art but also between plants and humans, anthropomorphizing leaves, flowers, and fruit, as did O’Keeffe.  In his popular catalogues he reproduced close-ups of the hybrids he developed.  But, although one exhibition label refers to the many nude photographs of O’Keeffe by Stieglitz, who proclaimed her art to be an expression of essentialized womanhood and whose photographs created the context for the blatantly sexual interpretations of her work that deeply disturbed the artist, nary a word about or image from Burbank.  It’s a missed opportunity. 

Along with the magnified botanicals, the most compelling paintings are those that result from O’Keeffe’s weather eye on the lake.  Lake George with White Birch catches a burst of light and colors on what must have been a rain-spattered day.  The voluptuous Lake George takes cues from early morning mist and its reflection.  Thespatial complexities of the landscape intrigued her.  Storm Cloud, Lake George interweaves near and far and twists the sky into copper ribbon.  Lake George with Crows experiments with oblique projection, a strategy the artist would have seen in Japanese art.  Autumn Trees, The Maple, which shuttles between figuration andabstraction,is indebted to both Mondrian’s trees as networks and to photographers’ use of shallow depth of field. To be sure, the exhibition includes cloying works like Petunia No. 2 and several dull oils of barns.  However, if the conventional wisdom, based on statements by the elderly O’Keeffe, that Lake George was Stieglitz’s domain but New Mexico was a place of her own is true in terms of psychological space and real estate, it’s not so in terms of artistic production. This exhibition offers plenty of visual evidence that Lake George was an exemplary muse. 
“Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George”@ de Young Fine Arts Museum through May 11, 2014. 
Patricia Albers is a Bay Area writer, art historian, and teacher. Her books include "Joan Mitchell, Lady Painter: A Life" and "Shadows, Fire, Snow: The Life of Tina Modotti."  She is currently working on a biography of photographer André Kertész. 
Image Credit:
Alfred Stieglitz, George O'Keeffe, 1920/1922, silver gelatin print, 4 1/2 x 3 9/16", courtesy of Museum of Georgia O'Keeffe, Gift of the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation. 

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