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Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George at de Young Museum

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Before her iconic New Mexico desertscapes with sun-bleached skulls -- some adorned with a lone flower, and preceding her dynamic portfolio of soaring New York City skyscrapers, and well before the streaming waterfall and black lava bridge paintings of her brief Maui sojourn, there was Lake George, where the sense of place that defines the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe first took root.

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O’Keeffe lived there part of each year from 1918 until 1934, on the family estate of Alfred Stieglitz, whom she married in 1924. Stieglitz was the most influential photographer and art dealer of his time, and their artistic union and creative dialogue is the stuff of legend.

The years at Lake George were among the most prolific in O’Keeffe’s long and remarkable seven-decade career, yet her works from this period have often been glossed over by art historians, dismissed as secondary to her New Mexico output. A landmark survey, “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” sets out to change that perception through a selection of 55 of the 200 works she created there. These are on display at the de Young Museum through May 11.

Her “Starlight Night, Lake George” (1922), not exhibited since 1923, helped introduce O’Keeffe to the New York City art world. This almost mystical nighttime encounter, which references Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” reveals the connection of the individual with the cosmos.

The soft misty greys, greens and blues of “Lake George,” painted in 1922, capture the ethereal side of the 32-mile long glacial lake that remains one of New York State’s premier tourist destinations, set at the base of the Adirondack Mountains.

Many more of the paintings show O’Keeffe’s solid connection with the earth, returning to her agrarian roots as she tends her gardens of flowers, fruits and vegetables.

She plants beds of brilliant purple and blue petunias, perhaps to study their hues. These inspire her first series of enlarged and tightly cropped flower paintings, “Petunia No. 2,”1924, and “Petunias,” 1925. This culminates in her next flower series, featuring the striking Jack-in-the-Pulpit.

These next sequential works, all painted in 1930, are revolutionary, if today instantly recognizable as O’Keeffe works. The five paintings evolve from two fairly representational images of a hooded flower with a fingerlike “Jack” in the center (Jack-in-the-Pulpit—No. 2 and 3) to the final No. VI, showing the flower distilled to its essence – the pistil.

“The sequence is a very deliberate journey of distillation and abstraction, where each painting stands on its own,” says Erin Coe, co-curator. “There is no repetition, size doesn’t matter.”

Much has been made of the rather clear sexual content of O’Keeffe’s flower paintings, which she impatiently dismisses as a “reductive reading.” Along with the Freudian interpretation of her flower paintings, the unraveling of her romantic relationship with Stieglitz is revealed in her “Brown and Tan Leaves,” 1928 and “Dark & Lavender Leaves,” 1931. The psychodrama as explained in the labels and the catalogue gives a fascinating back-story to the art, but it’s O’Keeffe’s mastery of her medium and her original vision that makes her work so compelling. This groundbreaking survey puts her Lake George years in its proper context as a launching pad for this legendary pioneer of American modernism.

Exhibition Organization

The exhibition is curated by Erin B. Coe, chief curator of The Hyde Collection, and Barbara Buhler Lynes, former curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The exhibition is organized by The Hyde Collection, Glens Falls, New York, in association with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Exhibition Catalogue

A fully illustrated, 200-page book from the international art publisher Thames & Hudson, also entitled Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, accompanies the exhibition. The lead essay is written by organizing curator Erin B. Coe, with additional essays by Bruce Robertson, professor, Department of the History of Art and Architecture, University of California, Santa Barbara; and Gwendolyn Owens, consultant curator of the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal. $40 | $36 FAMSF members

Purchase at the FAMSF Museum Stores or online at shop.famsf.org

Visiting the de Young Museum

Where: Golden Gate Park
Phone: (415) 750-3600
Hours: Tuesday-Sunday, 9:30 a.m.-5:15 p.m.; Friday (March 29-November 29) 9:30 a.m.-8:45 p.m.; closed Mondays

Admission Tickets start at $25 for adults and include general admission; discounts are available for seniors, students and youths. Special Premium tickets are also available. Members and children 5 and under are free. Tickets available at deyoungmuseum.org.

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