Report from San Francisco: For Bay Area, Hyde’s O’Keeffe Show and Lake George are a Revelation
As an artist Georgia O’Keeffe looked at flowers with searching intensity; but the same cannot be said of the painter’s fans, who never stopped to ask how O’Keeffe found Jack-in-the-Pulpits, Petunias, and Hollyhocks, all flowers she depicted in popular works, in New Mexico.
“Of course most of those flowers don’t grow in the Southwest,” said Timothy Anglin Burgard, Curator in Charge of American Art for the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF). “Georgia O’Keeffe is one of those artists who has become so legendary,” Burgard added, “her public persona has always threatened to overwhelm the work itself.”
Now, thanks to the exhibition “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” which opened at the de Young Fine Arts Museum on February 15, people here in San Francisco are recognizing that those iconic flowers are not from the Southwest, the region so synonymous with the painter, but from Lake George, where she lived with photographer Alfred Stieglitz for chunks of the year between 1918 and the early 1930s. Curated by The Hyde Collection’s Erin Coe, “Modern Nature” reaffirms that O’Keeffe, as the critic Robert Hughes once observed, “appropriated the 19th Century image of the Pioneer Woman,” and created a mythology to match in New Mexico, obscuring the past and the significance of Lake George.
“As you would expect what people know first and foremost is the Southwest period, so the Lake George period is a great revelation to them,” Burgard said, adding, “It really is when Georgia O’Keeffe became Georgia O’Keeffe, so I think that is one of the exhibition’s great contributions.”
On a recent Saturday afternoon at the de Young museum, a copper block and tower located inside Golden Gate Park, visitor Andrei Tataru sat outside the special exhibition store. Nearby a blown-up Stieglitz photograph of O’Keeffe stood glaring over the people picking through books and spinning postcard racks. Tataru, who said he was less familiar with the Lake George period, called the show “delightful.”
“It’s not at all what I expected and yet I really enjoyed it,” he said. “The contrast between what she did in Lake George and what she did later in New Mexico is very interesting. It reveals so much about her.”
When the Hyde Collection asked to loan the de Young’s “Petunias” (1925) for “Modern Nature,” curator Burgard took an interest in the show. “I recommended to our then director that this would be a wonderful exhibition to have in San Francisco,” he said. The de Young (one of the two Fine Arts Museums in San Francisco), which receives about a million visitors annually, has hosted O’Keeffe shows in the past. In 2000, the museum presented “The Poetry of Things” and some of the works in that exhibition are featured in “Modern Nature.”
In its San Francisco incarnation “Modern Nature” opens with a small but pleasing introduction to Lake George, with some relevant pieces from the museum’s permanent collection plus photographic views of the Narrows, Paradise Bay, Mt. Prospect, and comparable spots. On display from the permanent collection, for example, is “Picturesque America”(1874), an illustrated book, edited by the poet and newsman William Cullen Bryant, that celebrates Lake George and other American landscapes. Also on view are several Lake George steel engravings, based on sketches by the English artist William Henry Bartlett, which first appeared in a similar book called “American Scenery” (1838).
“They played a very influential role in shaping the iconography of Lake George and the tourist industry for Lake George,” Burgard said of both books.
In the gallery beside the engravings are two decorative dessert plates, manufactured by the Coalport Porcelain Factory in Shropshire, England around 1840, and featuring Lake George views of the Narrows and Sabbath Day Point (images appropriated from “American Scenery”). Like the illustrated books, the plates are emblematic of the middle class’s burgeoning interest in tourism and Lake George in the mid-19th Century.
According to Burgard, the Lake George introduction not only helps demonstrate that O’Keeffe was not the first artist to work at Lake George, but it also provides a sampling of the area’s local history, which would have been very familiar to O’Keeffe since Stieglitz had a keen interest in Lake George’s past.
As for the Bay Area’s critical response to “Modern Nature,” it has been almost universally positive. The San Jose Mercury News, commenting on the variety of styles O’Keeffe employed at Lake George, called the show an “enthralling, wide-ranging examination” that “confirms O’Keeffe as one of the pioneers of American modernism.” Nancy Ewart, who writes about San Francisco museums for the Examiner.com, concluded that “O’Keeffe defined herself as a painter and produced her most revealing, revolutionary work” at Lake George.
Writing less effusively, Kenneth Baker, the art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, called the show “pleasing but hardly stirring.” Asked how O’Keeffe’s Lake George work compares with what she produced in New Mexico, Baker observed that the earlier work suggests a self-contained artist. “It strikes me generally as far more intimate than much of what followed from New Mexico,” Baker said in an e-mail, adding, “I think the more distinctive aspect that develops in her later art is the sense of herself more as a public than a private artistic voice.”
Burgard also believes the Lake George work has a private dimension. Several paintings seem to trace the arc of the O’Keeffe-Stieglitz relationship, which started to erode once Stieglitz entered into an affair with Dorothy Norman, an absurdly young admirer, in the late 1920s. “Farmhouse Window and Door” (1929), for example, is a painting the artist finished the same year she began visiting New Mexico and spending long periods away from Stieglitz. It is austere, claustrophobic, and surprisingly colorless.
“Here’s Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the greatest colorists in the history of American art, and all the color has been drained from this painting. That’s very telling,” Burgard explained.
Certainly one of the show’s most handsome paintings, “Starlight Night, Lake George” (1922), representing the lake melodically reflecting splashes of star, is also unusual, as Burgard points out, because it shows two distant electric lights—traces of modernity that O’Keeffe rarely depicts at Lake George. Burgard believes the painting corresponds to Vincent van Gough’s “Starry Night Over the Rhone” (1888), whose foreground features a man and woman walking arm in arm along the river. “Starlight Night” possibly stands for the O’Keeffe-Stieglitz relationship at an earlier time, wherein the couple become the two separate but united beacons across the lake.
“They were two equals, two counterparts, that came together in personal and professional communion, but were in a sense distinct,” he said.
O’Keeffe eliminated certain elements from the Lake George landscape, such as steamboats and houses, roads and people, but that could explain why the paintings are such a delight. (As O’Keeffe once remarked, “It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get at the real meaning of things.”) Dissociated from any historical moment, the paintings have what Burgard calls a “timeless” quality.
“They have a Platonic perfection, an idealized view of nature,” he said; and that perfection suggests the ever-present human desire to escape city life and return to nature.
“That really resonates with modern viewers, both people here in California, which is home to the environmental movement, and people who visit or live at Lake George.”
James H. Miller, an assistant editor for the Lake George Mirror, lives in San Francisco. A frequent contributor to publications such as Publishers Weekly, he will enter the Williams College Graduate Program in the History of Art in September.