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Dual Icons in the Philadelphia Art Museum
This article by Pat Summers was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on May 12, 1999. All rights reserved.
Like a small, dimly-lit chapel in the depths of the
Philadelphia Museum of Art, the current display of "Georgia O’Keeffe
and Alfred Stieglitz" visually perpetuates the romantic-artistic
myth of this early 20th-century glam couple. A series of Stieglitz’s
portrait photographs of his muse and wife leads the viewer down one
side of the room to the alter-cynosure of the exhibition: O’Keeffe’s
"Red Hills and Bones," mounted on the wall facing the entrance.
On the third wall: four more O’Keeffe paintings and four charcoal
drawings. There are 19 works in all, 11 of them recent purchases from
the O’Keeffe Foundation — an appealing, intimate show that invites
deliberate viewing and appreciation.
Wholly believable or not, especially in light of today’s media-manipulating
power couples, the basic O’Keeffe-Stieglitz story is attractive, and
the art that supports it is worth seeing in its own right. Stieglitz,
23 years older than O’Keeffe, had already made his name as a pioneer
of modern photography, editor, publisher, art patron, and art dealer
by the time the couple joined forces around 1918. Born to a prosperous
family in Hoboken in 1864, Stieglitz grew up in Manhattan, studied
in Germany, and assimilated artistic influences from virtually everywhere.
By the 1890s he was using hand-held cameras for candid scenes of New
York life, with his "Winter on Fifth Avenue" the first pictorial
photograph of a snow storm. By 1902, he had founded the "Photo
Secession," a group concerned with pictorial photography; a year
later he published the first issue of "Camera Work," the group’s,
and his own, esthetic vehicle. His "291" gallery quickly became
headquarters both for Photo Secession and the New York avant garde.
First in the nation to show Matisse, Cezanne, Picasso, Brancusi, and
African sculpture as fine art, Stieglitz also collected modern works,
which the Philadelphia Museum of Art was the first in the country
to exhibit in 1944, two years before his death. That exhibition marked
the beginning of a long and positive relationship between Stieglitz,
O’Keeffe, and the Philadelphia Museum, whose acting assistant curator
of photographs, Matthew Witkovsky, curated this show.
Witkovsky notes that "Red Hills and Bones" came to the museum
in 1949 through Stieglitz’s bequest, and served as the museum’s introduction
to modern art. At that time, with the exception of New York’s Museum
of Modern Art, there was very little contemporary work in museums,
which typically concentrated on the entire history of Western art.
This small exhibition opens with a charming early image
of O’Keeffe — wearing a deep cloche and long dress, and holding
a hand saw — helping with tree pruning at the Stieglitz family’s
Lake George summer home. After that, Stieglitz’s tightly-framed black-and-white
photographs progress through two solarized images of O’Keeffe’s hands
— her long, slim fingers shown to dramatic advantage — through
close-ups, with and without the familiar slouch hats; and a 1929 image
of her in a car after returning from New Mexico. Tellingly, perhaps,
this last picture shows the increasingly independent artist a notch
higher than camera level, and smiling a self-possessed smile. Stieglitz
did not drive.
These images are all part of his serial portrait of O’Keeffe: an estimated
300 photographs and hundreds more studies, taken over 20 years. During
the summer of 1997, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited more
than 80 images from the serial portrait that have come as gifts into
its permanent collection. The composite portrait, which eventually
numbered more than 300 images, was judged by Stieglitz among his greatest
achievements. Biographers have cited O’Keeffe’s enthusiastic collaboration
in making the series, which heightened visibility for both photographer
Also included in the nine Stieglitz works are two sky-and-cloud photos
from his "Equivalents" series, a second notable photographic
effort during his alliance with O’Keeffe. He had stopped photographing
other people and taking street pictures to concentrate on intimate
images of his wife, but they were jointly interested in the abstraction
of natural forms — in his case, photographs that, lacking horizon,
scale, and perspective, often became abstract in effect. This mutual
interest showed in both their works.
Stieglitz became a champion of a modernist vision of "straight"
photography, for the most part composing images directly through the
camera lens, using sharp focus, and rarely — with the exception
of the stunning solarized prints of O’Keeffe’s hands in this show
— manipulating his prints. At a time predating digitally-produced
art that employs camera, dark room, copiers, and computers, among
other tools, and along with a multitude of machinations, Stieglitz
was — and could afford to be — a photography purist.
Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, Georgia O’Keeffe
decided at age 12 to become an artist. Before achieving that status,
she studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and New York’s Art Students
League, worked as a commercial artist, taught and supervised art instruction,
and became increasingly aware of European modernism — largely
through seeing Picasso, Braque, et al at Stieglitz’s "291"
Gallery. Around 1915, working alone from her teaching post in rural
Texas, she produced a series of large charcoal abstractions from "the
things in my head." Receiving these works in the mail, Stieglitz,
always eager to champion American art, exhibited them at 291 without
first consulting the artist. And the rest, as they say, is art history.
But more on that later.
It has been said that posing for Stieglitz’s numerous images of her
stoked O’Keeffe’s interest in the esthetics of photography. Certainly,
she adopted elements of the photographic process — cropped images,
isolated detail, telephoto, and magnified close-ups, for example —
in her own work. Think "Petunia No. 2" (1924) and various
New York cityscapes of the late ’20s, not to mention the recent first-class
postage stamp showing O’Keeffe’s orange poppy, itself closer to the
size of the original small painting than the numerous giant poster
and print reproductions it has engendered.
The O’Keeffe works in this exhibition range from the extremely simple,
subtle, and suggestive "Special No. 40" (1934) — her gentle
graphite on paper rendering of parts of a seashell — to her charcoal
portrait from the ’40s of artist Beauford Delaney, to "Birch and
Pine Tree No. 1" (1925), with its teal and green tones and curving
"white" trunk shapes, possibly foreshadowing the bleached
bones that were to come later and figure in so many of her works.
Her charcoal "Drawing III" (1959) could be a tree silhouette,
but it is a river bed in the desert, isolated and abstracted, and
strangely, memorably vivid. Also tightly framed, like many Stieglitz
photographs, "Peach and Glass" (1927) is a diminutive, distinctive
oil on canvas, and "From the Lake No. 3" (1924), in greeny-blue
and tan tones, exemplifies the artist’s practice of looking down or
across — in this case, at a stream bed — rather than up, and
enlarging small material details.
"I realized that I had things in my head not like what I had been
taught — not like what I had seen — shapes and ideas so familiar
to me that it hadn’t occurred to me to put them down." O’Keeffe
said this of her charcoal drawing of Palo Duro Canyon, in Texas, "Special
No. 15" (1916). These early drawings had excited Stieglitz, causing
him to dub O’Keeffe, "a woman on paper," and to begin exhibiting
her work. Starting around 1918, they lived and worked together, practically
inseparable. Not until 1929 did she first visit New Mexico, where
she then spent her summers until after Stieglitz’s death in 1946,
at age 82. Surviving him by 40 years, she moved permanently to Abiquiu,
north of Santa Fe, in 1949. She died there in 1986, blind and nearly
100 years old.
Long, close looks at the photographs in this Philadelphia Museum exhibition,
capping years of familiarity with similar photos and more of the art,
prompt some iconoclastic thoughts. So many images, so basically unvarying,
of Georgia O’Keeffe with "the look": "Olympia"-like,
full frontal face — not soft, not vulnerable, not ingratiating.
Those chiseled features, that severe hair, that hauteur. Was she a
poseur, for real? was this look carefully calculated — or was
she simply self-possessed, centered, whole? For O’Keeffe, an attractive
young artist wanting to break in, and Stieglitz, an older man in a
bad marriage wanting to break out, was this the right match at the
right time, and was the couple just ahead of its time in promotional
savvy? Or was she first in thrall to him for recognizing and promoting
her art, and later in debt to him for having done so, a mythic Pygmalion-Galatea
Could it all come down to mutually beneficial collusion? Or does this
entire train of thought spring from 1999’s pervasive cynicism about
almost everything? For all the answers, just wait for the long-rumored
and probably inevitable movie treatment of the O’Keeffe-Stieglitz
— Pat Summers
Museum of Art , Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th, Philadelphia,
215-763-8100; www.philamuseum.org. Tuesday through Sunday,
10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Wednesday evenings until 8:45 p.m. $8 for adults;
$5 for students, children, and seniors. Free admission Sundays before
1 p.m. This exhibition continues through May 23.
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