Essays:

> O’Keeffe and the Camera

Claire Holland / O’Keeffe and the Camera

November 2016

Georgia O’Keeffe never quite lost her reputation as a “female artist” whose work was often viewed in purely sexual terms – it was to obscure her art for years to come. A long overdue retrospective at Tate Modern – the first significant O’Keeffe show in the UK for more than twenty years – attempts to expand such narrow readings, and explores the relationship of her art and life to photography. It is a dense and focused exhibition that traces a long and prolific career, from the early diaphanous watercolours to the minimalist, hard-edged abstractions O’Keeffe produced when she was in her seventies. It’s an intriguing show that spans six decades of her life, and abounds with paintings – and photographs.

O’Keeffe lived a long, predominantly solitary life, yet this exhibition reveals something about her that is rather surprising: photography had an extremely powerful and lasting influence on her work. Her pastel-hued paintings of sun-bleached skulls and magnified flowers – and the millions of posters they inspired – now loom so large in the collective imagination that it’s easy to forget just how radical she was for her time. O’Keeffe was a trailblazer. Intensely respected by her peers, and at the forefront of the Modernist movement in New York in the 1920s, she was an inventive painter who looked at the world around her in an open, unprejudiced, fearless way. “Art, she once said, “must be a unity of expression so complete that the medium becomes unimportant.”

Curator, Tanya Barson portrays her as a progressive artist and a relentless experimenter, whose work owes as much to the camera as to the paintbrush. One of the ways she does this is to draw connections between O’Keeffe and the various photographers she was associated with, from her husband Alfred Stieglitz to her close friend Ansel Adams. There is almost a show-within-a-show here – the trajectory of her career is punctuated by a series of photographic works that help demonstrate how photo techniques and tropes impacted on her work. The exhibition opens with some of the organic, abstract charcoal works that heralded O’Keeffe’s arrival on the New York art scene in 1916. The drawings, shown at Stieglitz’s infamous “291” gallery, were some of her earliest mature expressions and mark the start of a lifelong commitment to abstraction, and an intense and complex relationship with Stieglitz, who was more than twenty years her senior. O’Keeffe’s art changed markedly in the first few years the two artists met, in no small measure due to Stieglitz’s photographs and her growing appreciation of photography.

As a young artist, she was fascinated by the way the photographers in Stieglitz’s circle were beginning to see the world in new, radical ways. Seeking to break moulds herself, she drew on photography’s capacity for minimalism. She was interested in the way in which photography articulated not only form, but space. It’s clear she was influenced by Stieglitz’s use of snow and smoke to form large fields of white. The direct influence can be seen when one compares O’Keeffe’s 1916 watercolour “Train at Night in the Desert” to Stieglitz’s much earlier “Snapshot – In the New York Central Yards” from 1903. It’s also clear that she was trying to stake out new ground for painting.

The way she painted changed profoundly at that time. She began bringing her eye in very close, abandoning the loose, feathery brushstrokes that she had learned from her former tutor William Merit Chase and emulating the very clean and sharp lines of a photograph. Moving away from pure abstraction, she would derive her subjects from the visual world she shared with Stieglitz. She also abandoned watercolour, which she had used extensively in Texas, and embraced oil paint. As she moved in closer to her subjects, she, too, used a limited ‘depth of field’, allowing background elements to fall away. And she started to embrace the scale of photography, making a number of pictures in the early 1920s that are approximately 8 x 10 inches, exactly the size of Stieglitz’s prints. 

O’Keeffe’s arrival in the city from Texas in 1918 coincided with a building boom that saw the city expand rapidly upwards. After they married in 1925, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, moved to the new, ultra-modern Shelton Hotel and O’Keeffe would paint the view from their windows. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz continued to share subjects and influence one another. “New York Street with Moon” acknowledges Stieglitz in its inclusion of a sky dominated by rippling cloud formations, informed by his sky series “Equivalents”, which hang in the adjacent room. In “The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y”, there’s a nod to the lens with the inclusion of spots of diffused light that disrupt the geometry of the building. But for O’Keeffe, the natural world and a sense of space enter the New York paintings in a way that contrasts with the solidity and mass of the buildings in Stieglitz’s photographs.

O’Keeffe was an artist who became acutely aware of the power of her own image. No painter ever had a more charged relationship with the camera. Unlike most artists, her own image would soon become as well-known as her paintings. In 1918 she began posing regularly for Stieglitz, who photographed her obsessively, taking more than 300 portraits of her during what became one of the most prolific periods of his career. But who is the O’Keeffe we see through Stieglitz’s eyes? He portrays her as a mysterious feminine force. Pictured in front of her drawings, arms outstretched as though the work has just sprung from her fingers, or as a naked, anonymous figure, fragments of her body spread-eagled, breasts pushed together, skewered like an exotic specimen: a portrait of a woman according to Stieglitz. “He was always photographing himself”, O’Keeffe once quipped. The nude portraits were naturally controversial at the time they were shown and, perhaps unfairly, O’Keeffe’s paintings were to be forever viewed through the prism of those controversial nudes, along with Stieglitz’s insistent Freudian interpretations of them.

Really, though, it was Stieglitz’s protégé Paul Strand whose photographs influenced her most. When O’Keeffe first met Stieglitz in 1916, she was exposed to Strand’s work. The following year, she wrote that she had been “making Strand photographs for myself in my head.” Strand honed in on objects, getting so close that their details turned into abstract compositions. And so it was that, when she came to paint flowers, O’Keeffe chose to zoom in and crop her frame, as Strand did. “Nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small—we haven’t time—and to see takes time,” she wrote. “So I said to myself—I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they’ll be surprised into taking time to look at it.” Strand showed O’Keeffe how the camera could describe the natural world while simultaneously compressing, flattening and layering space, thus transforming objects into abstract forms ‘as queer in shapes as Picasso’s drawings’, according to O’Keeffe.

The influence of Edward Weston can also be seen, most explicitly in the still lifes “Alligator Pear, 1922” and “The Eggplant, 1924”, paintings that interpret the light of photographs and highlight a period of intense study of form for O’Keeffe.

Throughout her career, O’Keeffe paid close attention to the developments of modern photography. A series of bold, optical paintings depicting New Mexico’s azure skies viewed through the aperture of a pelvic bone reinforces her understanding – and ongoing use of – cropping and the techniques of photography. Skies are a recurring theme (a point reinforced in the show with the inclusion of Adams’ otherworldly depictions of America’s epic sprawling landscapes and their vast skies). The later works, which seem to grow bigger and brighter as she aged, are masterpieces of courageous invention. The largest and most joyous paintings – a series of flattened skyscapes viewed from an aeroplane (that anticipate Agnes Martin), are almost cinematic. In the final decades of her life she produced some of the most extraordinary and unexpected works that are almost entirely abstract, and still bear the hallmarks of the camera lens. Whilst making a handful of snaps of wintery landscape from the window of her home in 1963, O’Keeffe tilted the camera to capture the road snaking towards the horizon (a technique borrowed from Stieglitz) causing the road to appear as though it was standing up in the air. In “Winter Road I” she renders the scene in as a single black ribbon of black paint curling across a stark white canvas. Spare, and with an intense sense of serenity, silence and deliberation, it’s O’Keeffe at her radical best.

What really comes to light through this exhibition is the astonishing innovation of her art – and her lifelong commitment to experimenting with photographic technique.

 – essay by Claire Holland

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Images reproduced courtesy of Tate