New Georgia O’Keeffe Photo Exhibit to Open in Denver | Culture & Leisure


To stand in front of a work by Georgia O’Keeffe is to stand in quiet contemplation.

His intimate paintings of black irises, lemon-colored calla lilies, bleached cow and horse skulls, deer bones, and New York City skyscrapers transport viewers inside the landscapes.

Although best known for her abstracts that pay homage to the natural world, O’Keeffe was more than her canvases. She was also a photographer. And while absorbing its small photos under 4 x 6 may require more patience and time, the shots will likely exert the same pull toward tranquility.

The new exhibition “Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer” will feature over 100 of her photos, 10 paintings, several drawings and ephemera related to O’Keeffe. It’s the culmination of three years of research by Lisa Volpe, curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. The show opens Sunday at the Denver Art Museum and will run through November 6.

“It (O’Keeffe’s work) can turn you inward and connect you to your inner peace,” said DAM’s photography curator, Eric Paddock. “It matches the kind of experiences people have in the desert southwest. If you hover, you might be interested in the colors or shapes of the landscape, but if you are in the landscape and you slow down and breathe, you become aware of this deep silence.

Because most of the artist’s prints were unsigned or dated, Volpe worked to decipher the year, location, and even time of each photo. She compared the edges and surfaces of the prints using Yale University’s database of historical paper types, traveled to New Mexico several times, and interviewed experts, including the manager of Botany from New Mexico State University and the Santa Fe Architectural Preservation Officer.

Extension of the O’Keeffe exhibition at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center

O’Keeffe has used photography to explore some of his favorite subjects: the architecture of his home in Abiquiú, NM, the Jimson weed flower, the play of shadows around his property, his beloved chow-chow dogs.

“The way she approached her photography was a lot like the way she did her drawings,” said Ariel Plotek, curator of fine arts at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. “She would choose a subject and explore it from different angles, sometimes simplifying it and finding the essence of the form. She does in some ways the same with the camera.

Volpe believes the artist could have used the former as reference material or as inspiration for his paintings. She notes in the exhibition catalog that the prints “show evidence of frequent handling: ink and paint stains, fingerprints and scratches in the emulsion, and, in some cases, shallow skin on the four corners of the back indicates that they were glued to a surface once.”

“I turned the camera at an acute angle to get the whole road,” O’Keeffe wrote in his 1976 autobiography on the road outside his Abiquiú home. “It was by chance that I made the road look like it was rising in the air, but it amused me and I started drawing and painting it as a new shape.”

The young artist

It’s no surprise that O’Keeffe turned to the camera. Even at age 10, she knew she would be an artist, taking watercolor lessons from an artist in Wisconsin, where she grew up at the turn of the 20th century. With her family’s camera, a young O’Keeffe often photographed her loved ones, but it was her love of painting that led her to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then to Art Students League of New York.

By 1908, she was a fully trained artist, although her detailed work did not resemble the abstract work that people now know of her. Around 1914, she began to move in this direction and a personal exhibition in 1917 heralded her rise to modernism, a break with the traditions of early 20th century European art. Artists in the genre experimented with abstraction, mixing realistic details with abstract elements.

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She started connecting with photographers, including her future husband, Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keeffe and the avant-garde photographer and gallerist married in 1924 and went on to have “a long, sometimes deeply romantic, rather turbulent relationship,” Paddock said.

Through Stieglitz, who took more than 300 photos of O’Keeffe during their relationship, she gained experience as a photographer’s role model and muse. She also gained first-hand experience in developing photos and final touch-ups, comparable to today’s Photoshop.

“It was done in the early 20th century with a brush and sometimes with a pencil and other retouching tools,” Plotek said. “We know it started as early as 1918, because the quality of her retouching improves dramatically once she comes into her life. She was a better hand with the brush than he was.

leave a legacy

A fateful trip to New Mexico in 1929 prompted O’Keefe to finally start creating his own photos. She spent the summer in the Southwest, met and befriended fellow photographers, including landscape enthusiast and conservationist Ansel Adams, and bought a car, driving around the northern part of the state, drawing and painting along the way. Inspired by the land, she moved to Abiquiú in the 1930s, where her photos began to accumulate. Around 1960, after Stieglitz had been nearly 15 years dead, O’Keeffe began taking pictures in a committed fashion, Plotek said.

Most of the photos in the new exhibit date from 1953 to 1972 and depict northern New Mexico, though one set consists of travel photos from the 1930s, including a trip to Hawaii commissioned by the Hawaiian Pineapple Co.

“The photographers she knew – Stieglitz, Adams, Paul Strand – intended to make very carefully crafted prints of their photos,” Paddock said. “She never treated photos as finished objects or works of art in the same way.”

In a devastating twist of fate for a visual artist, macular degeneration began to eat away at O’Keefe’s central vision in 1968, leaving her with only peripheral vision three years later. It was impossible for her to paint without the help of an assistant, so she sought other means of capturing her world, including photography and pottery.

His approach to modernism in his works, some of which are almost a century old, has aged well. And her whole aesthetic, including the idiosyncratic way she dressed in black and white wrap dresses and styled her hair, has power.

“Whether it’s his photos or his paintings, there’s something contemporary about them,” Plotek said. “Fashion styles come and go, but the simplicity of the way she lived in her homes or the way she dressed or the way she saw her subjects, reducing them to their most basic forms, still resonates so strongly .”

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