If hands could talk, the hands of Georgia O’Keeffe, as depicted by Alfred Stieglitz — her husband, photographer, modern art savant and reciprocal muse — would speak volumes about how both artists’ innate ambitions and mutual obsessions were intrinsic to their individual creativity, and profoundly influenced America’s realm of modern art and abstractionism.
The Art Gallery of Ontario’s (AGO) Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition includes 80 of her works of art, spanning six decades of her life, plus an array of 45 of Stieglitz’s photographs. Stunning in spacial scope, scale, colour and subject, the exhibit is enhanced by details and quotes written on the walls.
Starting at Stieglitz’s larger-than-life portrait of O’Keeffe, AGO associate curator Georgina Uhlyarik explains that the exhibit is curated to reflect the timeline of O’Keeffe’s ambitions and visions. Moving through the exhibit, the white-walled galleries displaying O’Keeffe’s works are interrupted by an intimate, slate-coloured space featuring Stieglitz’s photography, as if to delineate the painter’s pre- and post-Stieglitz eras.
Stieglitz and O’Keeffe rose from different worlds. Born in Hoboken, N.J., in 1864 to German-Jewish parents, Stieglitz grew up cultured, refined and wealthy. Little documentation of Stieglitz’s life as an assimilated Jew exists. Although his famed 1907 photograph, The Steerage, depicts humble immigrants arriving in America, they are not distinctly Jewish. Author Matthew Baigell’s 2006 book, American Artists, Jewish Images, says that Stieglitz “rarely referred to his Jewish background.”
By 1915, Stieglitz had travelled to Berlin. He was an internationally acclaimed photographer, famed for his journal, Camera Work, and for creating The Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession, also called Gallery 291. Before the Museum of Modern Art opened, this was New York’s only place to see modern art, including works by Henri Matisse, Cezanne, Pablo Picasso, Henri Rousseau and Auguste Rodin.
Meanwhile, O’Keeffe — born in 1887 to Dutch-Irish-Hungarian farmers in rural Wisconsin — had studied art in Chicago and New York, and was teaching in South Carolina and Texas. She had garnered a reputation as an eccentric for her short cropped hair and androgynous duds. Her creative mind brimmed with original ideas; she composed art unlike any produced by other artists; and she developed a penchant for drawing with charcoal, which was considered radical at that time.
The love story of Stieglitz and O’Keeffe seems bashert. Without O’Keeffe’s knowledge, her friend visited Gallery 291 and showed some of her charcoals to Stieglitz. Smitten by O’Keeffe’s insightful vision, articulate talent and the fact that she never trained in Europe, Stieglitz believed he had found the “great American woman artist” and, without meeting her, became determined to exhibit her work. They met in 1916, just as modern art started to gain credence. He was 52; she was 28.
In April 1917, O’Keeffe’s first solo exhibition launched her career. A year later, she moved to New York. In 1919, Stieglitz, although already married, moved in with her. Their personal and creative partnership shines through a dialogue of artworks: Stieglitz’s photographs of views from their apartment appear juxtaposed to O’Keeffe’s nocturnal paintings of New York’s skyline. After viewing the entire exhibit, O’Keeffe’s New York paintings feel almost claustrophobic in comparison to her visions of the vast, big sky world of the New Mexican desert.
In 1919, the couple started spending summers at the Stieglitz family estate on Lake George, in northeastern New York. It was there that O’Keeffe’s creativity blossomed, just as Stieglitz’s creativity galvanized. O’Keeffe developed a zest for living and working amid nature and began painting flowers, starting with petunias. As attention to her floral masterpieces grew, so did the Freudian interpretations of, and sexual innuendos about, her work. Likely perpetrated by Stieglitz and his circle, O’Keeffe denied any erotic intentions in depicting irises, lilies and poppies, claiming she painted the reality of nature as she saw it. She vowed to take control of how her work was presented, but could never control the myths.
Meanwhile, by the early 1920s, Stieglitz’s technically exquisite photographs of clouds cemented his status as one of the 20th century’s most important photographers. He started working on his modernist obsession to photograph one person over the course of a lifetime. Over 30 years, his composition, Portrait of a Woman — which included 350 photographs of his beloved muse, O’Keeffe — become an artistic sensation. The AGO’s selection of 12 pictures includes cropped shots of her naked body, as well as portraits that emanate Stieglitz’s adoration and fascination with the clarity of her eyes, genius of her hands and burgeoning talent. While viewing these images, Uhlyarik noted that these photographs reflect the couple’s relationship and O’Keeffe’s determination to take charge of her own image: “At this point, we see that O’Keeffe started out as Stieglitz’s wife, but now he is very much her husband.”
In 1924, Stieglitz finally divorced his first wife and married O’Keeffe. But it was not entirely blissful. Rumour had it that Stieglitz was obsessed with controlling O’Keeffe’s work and life, denied her wish for children and refused to travel, except to Lake George. By the late 1920s, he was mired in a notorious affair with photographer Dorothy Norman, with whom he apparently enjoyed celebrating their mutual German-Jewish heritage. Eventually, O’Keeffe began going to New Mexico for annual visits and supposedly indulged in her own affairs. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz would see each other occasionally until he died in 1946. After that, she moved to New Mexico, where she lived and worked until her own death in 1986, at age 98.
Much that is known of O’Keeffe’s and Stieglitz’s intimate lives is garnered from their correspondence — some 5,000 letters written between 1915 and 1946 that were meticulously preserved by O’Keeffe herself. The first batch of letters was published in the book, My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933. The letters veer beyond the couple’s passions and ideas, into broader cultural and social issues of the time. In 1933, for example, Stieglitz referred to news from Germany, saying that every hour brings the world closer to an abyss. After all his assimilation, Stieglitz’s words show a Jewish artist who was cognisant of his identity, the auspicious chaos of current events and the catastrophe doomed to befall humanity.
The AGO’s Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition depict an artist who was gifted enough to translate the sensuosity of the life and place of any subject onto canvas. In the abstract Music – Pink and Blue No. 1, O’Keeffe elegantly deconstructs the idea of sound waves and recomposes it with visual symmetry and intonations of colour that entice the eye to linger and admire. Her photographic precision shines in Cala Lily in Tall Glass – No. 2, where the tightly cropped painting depicts how immersion in water magnifies the stem. O’Keeffe’s breathtaking abstractions of simple spaces beg interpretation: the Patio Door series; and Black Door with Red (1954) hanging beside My Last Door 1953-54, which incidentally, was not the last door she painted.
Of all of O’Keeffe’s works, her 1932 Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1 broke records in 2014 as the most expensive painting by a female artist, selling at auction for US$44.4 million ($61 million).
In 1963, O’Keeffe photographed a road meandering into the distance, then painted Winter Road 1, an abstract view that arcs up the canvas like a dark, significant stroke of calligraphy. Reminiscent of her early charcoals, this culminates the exhibit. No doubt, Stieglitz would have approved.
Georgia O’Keeffe at the Art Gallery of Ontario to July 30, 2017. www.ago.net