New Georgia O’Keeffe Photo Exhibition Opens in Denver | art

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

Her intimate paintings of black irises, lemon-colored calla lilies, bleached cow and horse skulls, deer bones, and New York City skyscrapers have a way of transporting viewers into the landscapes.

Although O’Keeffe was best known for her abstracts that pay tribute to the natural world, she was more than her canvases. She was also a photographer. And while absorbing her tiny shots less than 4 by 6 may take more patience and time, the shots will likely have the same appeal to tranquility.

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

“It (O’Keeffe’s work) can turn you inward and connect you to your inner peace,” says DAM’s curator of photography, Eric Paddock. “That’s in line with the kind of experiences people have in the desert southwest. When you fly over it you may become interested in the colors or shapes of the landscape, but when you are in the landscape and you slow down and breathe you become aware of this deep stillness.”

Since most of the artist’s prints were unsigned and undated, Volpe tried 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 historic papers, visited New Mexico several times and interviewed experts, including the chief of botany at New Mexico State University and the Santa Fe Architectural Preservation Officer.

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O’Keeffe used photography to explore some of her favorite subjects: the architecture of her home in Abiquiú, NM, the jimson weed blossom, the play of shadows around her property, her beloved chow chow dogs.

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

Volpe believes that the artist used the former as reference material or inspiration for paintings. She notes in the exhibition’s catalog that the prints “show evidence of extensive use: ink and paint stains, fingerprints and scratches in the emulsion, and, in some cases, shallow skin on all four corners of the reverse indicating that they were stuck on a surface at one time.”

“I turned the camera at a sharp angle to see all the way,” O’Keeffe wrote in her 1976 autobiography of the road in front of her home in Abiquiú. “It was by accident that I pretended the road was in the sky, 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 was drawn to the camera. Even when she was ten, she knew she would become an artist, taking watercolor lessons from an artist in Wisconsin, where she grew up towards the turn of the 20th century. With her family’s camera, a young O’Keeffe often took pictures of her relatives, but it was her love of painting that took her to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and then to The Art Students League of New York.

By 1908 she was a fully formed artist, although her detailed work was nothing like the abstract work that people know her now. She started moving in that direction around 1914, and a solo exhibition in 1917 heralded her rise in modernism, a break with the traditions of European art in the early 20th century. Artists in the genre experimented with abstraction, mixing realistic details with abstract elements.

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She began connecting with photographers, including her husband-to-be, Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keeffe and the avant-garde photographer and gallery owner married in 1924 and then had “a long, sometimes deeply romantic, rather unstable relationship,” Paddock said.

Thanks to Stieglitz, who took over 300 photos of O’Keeffe during their relationship, she gained the experience of being a photographer’s model and muse. She also gained first-hand experience in developing photos and doing final retouches, similar to modern Photoshop.

“It was done in the early 20th century with a brush and sometimes with a colored pencil and other retouching tools,” Plotek said. “We know this started way back in 1918 because the quality of his retouching improves dramatically once it comes into his life. She was a more skilled hand with the brush than he had been.”

Leaving a legacy

An ill-fated trip to New Mexico in 1929 prompted O’Keefe to finally take her own photographs. She spent the summer in the Southwest, meeting and befriending more photographers, including landscape enthusiast and environmentalist Ansel Adams, and bought a car, drove all over the northern part of the state, sketching and painting along the way. Inspired by the country, she settled in Abiquiú in the 1930s, where her photographs began to pile up. Around 1960, after Stieglitz had been dead for nearly 15 years, O’Keeffe began taking pictures with dedication, Plotek said.

Most of the photos in the new exhibit are from 1953 to 1972 and show northern New Mexico, although a number of travel photos are from the 1930s, including a trip to Hawaii commissioned by the Hawaiian Pineapple Co.

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

In a devastating twist of fate for a visual artist, macular degeneration began to devour 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 use of an assistant, so she sought other ways to capture her world, including photography and pottery.

Her approach to modernism in her works, some of which are nearly a century old, have aged well. And her whole aesthetic, including the quirky way she dressed in black and white wrap dresses and styled her hair, has staying power.

“Whether it’s her photos or her 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 her way of seeing her subjects, reducing them to their most basic forms, still resonates so strongly. “

Contact the writer: 636-0270

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