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.
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.”
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.