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'Modern Nature: Georgia O'Keeffe and Lake George' at the de Young

Garcia Lorca’s poem, “Green, as I love you, greenly” might have been used at the subtitle of the current show of Georgia O’Keeffe’s works at the de Young.

Autumn Leaves. From 1918 until the early 1930s, Georgia O’Keeffe retreated annually to Alfred Stieglitz’s family estate on Lake George.
"Modern Nature. Georgie O'Keeffe at Lake George"

"Modern Nature: Georgia O'Keeffe and Lake George," co-curated by Coe along with Barbara Buhler Lynes, former curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, and organized in association with the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico -- is the first survey exhibition to focus on the formative influence of Lake George on O'Keeffe's life and art.

Long before O'Keeffe reinvented herself as the Sybil of the American Southwest and the goddess of paintings celebrating bleached skulls and bone-dry landscapes, she was the muse, lover and wife of Alfred Stieglitz, the most influential gallery owner in the US.

O’Keeffe early on knew that she wanted to be an artist. She studied in New York, worked as a commercial artist in Chicago and avidly followed the art trends and theories of the day. She was working as a teacher in the south when she sent a roll of her experimental drawings to a friend in New York.

The friend showed the work to Alfred Stieglitz who declared that he had found “at last, a woman on paper.” The story is probably apocryphal but the ensuring exhibit, public acclaim, correspondence, love story and partnership that lasted until Stieglitz’s death in 1946 is not.

The Stieglitz family summered at Lake George, a resort in Northern NY State. At first reluctant to go, O'Keeffe resigned herself to going and later came to see the beauties of the region – at least for a while. But she remained highly critical of many of her in-laws and always sought solitude away from family events and gatherings.

During this highly productive period, she created more than 200 paintings on canvas and paper in addition to sketches and pastels, making her Lake George years among the most prolific and transformative of her seven-decade career. This period also coincided with O'Keeffe's first critical success and emergence as a professional artist.

In 1924, O'Keeffe began planting beds of purple and blue petunias at the Stieglitz family estate on Lake George where she spent summers to study their subtle, radiant hues. As co-curator Erin Coe points out in the exhibit catalog, the growing of petunias that pivotal summer provided the impetus for her first enlarged flower painting.

The exhibit opens with a smattering of information about Lake George but then, moves right into the heart of the matter – O’Keeffe’s modulated rounded forms, simplified landscapes and controversial flower images.

"Trees in Autumn" (1920-21) and "Autumn Leaves" (1924) are bold, with vibrant reds, browns and acid green. "Starlight Night, Lake George" (1922) is calm – suggesting Japanese influence in the simplified form and soft color.

"Petunias" (1925), part of the de Young’s permanent collection, is luminous with velvety gradations of blue and purple.

Coe points out that these enlarged flowers were O'Keeffe's most original contribution to 20th-century art. Also on view is the glowing, jewel-like "Apple Family -- 2" (1920) and the Jack-in-the-Pulpit series from 1930.

It was O’Keeffe as Stieglitz’s erotic model that gave her the most grief.

As Robert Hughes noted in “American Visions,” a lot of words have been written as to whether O’Keeffe set out to use specific sexual or genital imagery in her paintings of this period. O’Keeffe angrily denied any sexual impulse at all.

But this has to be very disingenuous. To not see the sexuality in Jack in the Pulpit’s upright stamen or the pulsating folds of “Petunias” is absurd. She must have been aware, to some extent, of how nature reproduces itself.

O’Keeffe was Stieglitz’s muse in some of the most erotic works ever created by a photographer. The public exhibition of some of those photographs created a star. These photographed, combined with the shows of her flower paintings, set off a fire-storm of Freudian interpretation.

Perhaps one should say that O’Keeffe wanted to differentiate between the erotic and the pornographic but her disclaimers – repeated in the show – do little to illuminate the controversy. She was devastated – all the way to the bank.

Actually, O'Keeffe was no stranger to commerce, according to one of her biographers, Benita Eisler. In an excerpt from her book published in Mirabella magazine, Ms. Eisler writes of O'Keeffe's early years: ''She gloried in both the money and the publicity of commissions from Elizabeth Arden, Dole Pineapple and especially the Radio City Music Hall in 1922,'' where a mural she had done for the powder room fell off the walls because of an unstable preparation.

The exhibit links O’Keeffe to a wider artistic community - Arthur Dove, Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth, whom she knew as well as the circle around Stieglitz and his galley. On display is a woodblock print by Russian-born colorist Wassily Kandinsky; O'Keeffe was reading his book "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" by 1915.

By the 1930's, Lake George began to seem stifling and O’Keeffe started to move away for longer and longer periods of time. After Stieglitz’s death in 1946, she moved permanently to the American Southwest and her painting changed to the simplified forms that most of us know.

But it was in Lake George and in the early days of her love for Stieglitz that O’Keeffe defined herself as a painter and produced her most revealing, revolutionary work.

The exhibition explores O’Keeffe’s full range of work inspired by Lake George through a selection of 53 works including the famous flower paintings, fruit, still lifes, landscapes, trees both stark and voluminous, abstractions and barns (maybe the least successful of her works from this period)

The works have been gathered from private collections and major museums across the country, including the Seattle Art Museum, Denver Art Museum, High Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art (New York), San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, Walker Art Center, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Through May 11, 2014

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