Groundbreaking “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George” Opens at The Hyde
Georgia O’Keeffe is so closely identified with New Mexico that fans and not a few scholars are surprised to learn that much of her most important work was completed on the shores of Lake George in upstate New York.
Our ignorance is largely the fault of the artist herself, who once told the New Yorker’s Calvin Tomkins, “Lake George is not really painting country.”
It should be noted that she told the same writer, “We’d push the past out of our way entirely if we only could.”
“Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” an exhibition that will travel from The Hyde Collection in Glens Falls to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and then to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, demonstrates that Lake George, far from being a footnote to O’Keeffe’s career, was its crucible.
According to Erin Coe, who curated the exhibition, O’Keeffe completed more than 200 paintings at the lake between 1918 and 1934, the most prolific years of her career. Acknowledged or not, Lake George was indeed “painting country.”
For instance, those images of flowers that made her a celebrity (at least among undergraduates) in the 1970s, and which people attribute to the bohemian doyenne of the southwest, were painted on Lake George.
Here, she pushed representation toward the edges of abstraction, where something essential about the natural world is to be found on the canvas, albeit distilled, or abstracted, from the particulars of the landscape. It was an approach to nature that she would take with her when she turned to the desert landscapes of the southwest.
Although O’Keefe spent a summer on Lake George in 1908 at an artists’ colony founded by Yaddo benefactors Spencer and Katrina Trask, it was not until 1918 that she became an annual summer resident.
A few years earlier, she had fallen in love with Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and impresario whose family started coming to Lake George in the 1870s. The family compound would become the couple’s sole, permanent home until Stieglitz’s death in 1946.
They timed their stays to coincide with the departure of Stieglitz’s relatives, whose table talk O’Keeffe found irritating, but for the six to eight weeks the property was theirs, Lake George was the motionless fulcrum of their hectic lives, a place to garden and hike, to row out to islands or to the village, and even to play miniature golf. But above all else, it was a place for both to work in companionable silence.
Stimulated by one another, they attacked the same subjects – the clouds, the trees, the architecture of the family’s house, barns and outbuildings.
“Georgia O’Keeffe reveled in Lake George; in her letters she constantly remarks how perfect it is,” says Erin Coe. “Over and over again, I hear people say, ‘Georgia O’Keeffe hated Lake George.’ It simply wasn’t true.”
Coe even takes issue with accounts about O’Keeffe’s feelings toward Stieglitz’s relatives.
At least a few of them, Coe says, appealed to O’Keeffe, especially if they appeared infrequently and spoke even less. Foremost among those relatives was Stieglitz’s nephew Donald Davidson, who re-established the property’s orchards, vegetable and flower gardens and whose horticultural expertise informed O’Keeffe’s aesthetic approach to the jack-in-the-pulpits, petunias and poppies she painted.
To be sure, the relationship between Stieglitz and O’Keeffe, which had been formalized with a wedding in 1924, had its challenges. Twenty-three years older than O’Keeffe, Stieglitz began an affair with an even younger woman named Dorothy Norman in the early 1930s.
By then, O’Keeffe had begun making annual trips to the southwest, a place where she could escape Stieglitz and the powerful, obtrusive influence he exercised over her art and life.
“I have not wanted to be anything but kind to you – but there is nothing to be kind if I cannot be me,” she wrote to Stieglitz in 1929.
A ‘’me” of course is a very ductile thing indeed, and the “me” O’Keeffe fashioned over the last decades of her life was one that purported to owe nothing to Stieglitz and Lake George.
Stieglitz himself had more or less single-handedly created a public image or “newspaper personality” for O’Keeffe, first with an exhibition of his nude photographs of her in 1920 and then, in 1924, with a show of flower paintings which he interpreted and then publicized as representations of the female eros. Among the many things O’Keeffe carried with her from Lake George to New Mexico were the techniques that she had learned from a master of public relations.
While much of the wooded shores of the 32-mile-long lake remain untouched, there is little in the village of Lake George today that O’Keeffe and Stieglitz would recognize. The family mansion became a motel. The farmhouse and barns were burned in the 1950s and the property subdivided. Stieglitz’s ashes are buried, depending upon whom you talk to, beneath a parking lot or a pump house that pushes lake water to a treatment plant.
And, with the exception of a historical marker erected last summer near the site of the farm, until recently there was little to inform visitors that two of the most famous artists of the 20th century once lived and worked here.
As of this summer, though, Lake George’s local history museum is displaying artifacts associated with the artists’ life on Lake George, the centerpiece of which is a diorama created by Clarke Dunham depicting life in Lake George in the 1920s and 30s, when Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were among the lake’s most prominent residents.
According to Lisa Adamson, the museum’s curator, “Our directors have always wanted to affirm the relationship between Lake George and O’Keeffe and Stieglitz with a display, and the opening this summer of The Hyde Collection’s “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” presented us with a new opportunity to call attention to that relationship. After speaking with Erin Coe, we recognized that as a local historical museum, we should focus on something other than the work of the artists. We chose to focus on their connection to the community. The lake and the Village inspired them, and they left us with a legacy.”
The Hyde has also mounted an exhibition to complement “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” called, “A Family Album: Alfred Stieglitz and Lake George.”
According to Alice Grether, The Hyde’s director of communications, “A Family Album” takes an intimate look at the family compound, which was the couple’s home until Stieglitz’s death in 1946.
And later this summer, the Adirondack Theatre Festival will mount two productions based on the life of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz.
Filming O’Keeffe, a play by Eric Lane will open July 12. And on August 9 and 10, Carolyn McCormick and Byron Jennings will read from the artists’ correspondence with one another in a new show called Faraway Nearest One.
Lake George’s mayor and the chamber of commerce hope that “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George” will bring renewed attention and more tourists to the resort community. A commercial calculation like that is something both Stieglitz and O’Keeffe would have understood, and perhaps even appreciated.
An earlier version of this article appeared in Quest magazine and is reprinted with the permission of the publisher.