Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Georgia O'Keeffe: Something so perfect

Georgia O'Keeffe / Starlight Night, Lake George
Oil on canvas / 1922.

In 1923, Georgia O'Keeffe wrote a letter to a friend in which she described her rural retreat at Lake George, the family estate of the famed photographer and pioneering modernist art dealer Alfred Stieglitz, in New York's Adirondack Park: "I wish you could see the place here -- there is something so perfect about the mountains and the lake and the trees. Sometimes, I want to tear it all to pieces -- it seems so perfect."

Modern Nature: Georgia O'Keeffe and Lake George, a major exhibition of paintings, works on paper and photographs examining the body of work that the American artist Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) created based on her visits to Lake George, is receiving an exclusive West Coast presentation at the de Young Fine Arts Museum in San Francisco. The exhibition began on February 15 and continues through May 11. It was organized by the Hyde Collection in association with the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. My wife and I visited the exhibition at the de Young on Easter Sunday and found it to be pleasing.

Georgia O'Keeffe / Autumn Leaves
Oil on canvas, 1924.
We were welcomed by O'Keeffe's signature style of modernism and abstraction in her paintings and sketches, a colorful collection that she created based on her years of experience in this Adirondack Mountains site.

The exhibition featured 53 of the more than 200 paintings O'Keeffe created on canvas and paper, in addition to sketches and pastels, and they were collected for this exhibition from both public and private collections. It covers one of the most prolific periods of her seven-decade career.

"Modern Nature explores the full range of the work she produced at Lake George, including magnified botanical compositions inspired by the flowers and vegetables that she grew in her garden, as well as the apples and pears that she picked on the property," according to a preview article in Fine Arts magazine about the O'Keeffe exhibition. "O'Keeffe became fascinated by the variety of trees -- cedars, maples, poplars, and birches -- that grew in abundance at Lake George, and she created works based on them featuring telescoping views of a single leaf or pairs of overlapping leaves."

Georgia O'Keeffe / Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape).
Oil on canvas, 1922.

Among the paintings which I admired and enjoyed were Lake George (formerly Reflection Seascape), a 1922 oil on canvas, and Autumn Leaves, an oil on canvas that dates to 1924. Both evoke a spirit of place and reflect O'Keeffe's vision of a modern approach to a natural world.

Looking back, I think my favorite painting in the Modern Nature exhibition was Starlight Night, Lake George, an 16 x 24 inch oil on canvas. This 1922 painting by O'Keeffe, which is drawn from the collection of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, very nicely captures the subtle but distinct color and beauty of the lake and mountain horizon as seen from her summer retreat at Lake George. My first reaction to it was that O'Keeffe had realized her version of Van Gogh's post-impressionist Starry Night. 

Whether or not O'Keeffe ever admitted it, Lake George definitely was painting country for her.

 Photos: © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

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