For Cody Hartley, the director of curatorial affairs at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, it’s the calm after the storm. It’s a day after the unveiling of Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George—his first big installation since taking the curatorial helm—and after a months-long process, he’s finally taking a chance to smell the roses—er, calla lilies.
“She’s really just starting to enter her professional career as an artist,” Hartley says about this period in O’Keeffe’s life.
A world away from O’Keeffe’s trademark desertscapes, the exhibit, 64 pieces strong, delves into the artist’s younger years, when she first experienced commercial success and became an artistic commodity. “These are the years when she receives her greatest professional recognition, critical acclaim, commercial success and public recognition,” Hartley says.
Years when she spent her summers and falls at the Stieglitz family compound in Lake George. Nicknamed the “Queen of American Lakes,” the tarn at the base of the Adirondack Mountains provided a getaway for O’Keeffe, as well as a constant reminder of her early years in rural Wisconsin.
“Most exhibitions have focused, for obvious reasons, on New Mexico, but even little-known places where O’Keeffe did not spend extended periods of time such as Hawaii, Texas and Williamsburg have been the subject of study and exhibition,” exhibit curator as well as chief curator for The Hyde Collection, Erin Coe tells SFR.
-Georgia O'Keeffe, 1927
“Modern Nature seeks to establish Lake George as one of the primary places that engaged the artist and to hopefully enlarge the discourse surrounding O’Keeffe’s connection to nature, and how this region played a pivotal role in her modern approach,” she continues.
Calling her as the “genius” behind the exhibit, Hartley credits Coe for highlighting this until-now overlooked period in O’Keeffe’s work.
“It was her observation that O’Keeffe’s years in Lake George, from 1918 to 1934, had been completely neglected by a lot of art historians and critics,” Hartley says. “The reason for that, in part, was because of O’Keeffe herself.”
Hartley explains that after her love affair with New Mexico cemented and following Alfred Stieglitz’s death, the artist described Lake George as “a place of some frustration,” and referred to members of the Stieglitz family as “intrusive and a little too gregarious for her taste.”
During that time, the artist, considered “the Mother of American Modernist,” felt swallowed by the lush landscape.
“It was suffocating and claustrophobic to her after she’s used to the openness and the light of New Mexico,” Hartley says, insisting the period is not just important in understanding O’Keeffe’s later works, but also near to her heart. “People might have read a little bit too much into her own words and thought this was just a miserable, unpleasant time in her life.”
Still, there’s an unabashed joy in some of the pieces that comprise the exhibit, which is divided into five sections: Abstraction, Barns and Buildings, The Portraits, Lake George Souvenirs and From the Garden.
“They were incredibly productive years—some of the most productive decades of her life,” Hartley says.One particular piece in Barn and Buildings, “Cow, 1921” is both insightful and humorous. It depicts a vertical bovine licking a bunch of grapes, eyes popping and tongue curled, reminiscent of what would become the artists’ trademark floral paintings.
“O’Keeffe grew up on a dairy farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin,” Hartley says. “She was very comfortable with the kind of agrarian, farm aspect of Lake George. She enjoyed it when the cows came along; she thought they were really kind of entertaining and fun—the Stieglitz family did not—which probably made her like the cows even more,” the curatorial director jokes.
The composition of this piece in particular is interesting because of its direction. Like a few other, sweeping pieces in the show, it would be as effective hung horizontally. In fact, Hartley says, many pieces in O’Keeffe’s catalog are wired to hang either way.
“She thought, ‘If it’s well-composed, it’s balanced and harmonious, you should be able to turn it.’”
Hartley points out hallmarks in Cow that paved the way for the artist’s signature style. “She’s cropping it in a really unusual way, you get just the top half of the cow’s head—no sense of the mass of the body, so she’s using all her abstract tools to paint a very unusual subject.”
As curatorial lead of the O’Keeffe Museum, Hartley was aware of some of the pieces that make up Modern Nature, but he admits being blown away by the vastness and richness of this period.
“That’s a revelation,” he says. “We knew she painted barns, we knew she painted landscapes and flowers, but to gather them in one show and link them all to the Lake George experience is really quite surprising.”
Following the flow of the exhibit, “The Portraits” are presented next. Imposing in their scale, this area is populated by tree paintings.
“We call them ‘portraits’ she did of trees, because she presents them almost as if they’re sentient beings,” Hartley says. “They fill the canvas and are monumental in their presence.”
He is standing next a particularly haunting piece, “The Chestnut Gray, 1924.” It’s dominated by a black trunk and limbs that heavily contrast against a delicate teal and pink-toned sky. For Hartley, the piece is a preview of O’Keeffe’s future depictions of New Mexico life.
“A decade later, she’s in New Mexico and she’s painting crosses against the New Mexican sky—sometimes with stars, much like the little white moon that’s visible in this painting,” he says. ”The format here—in terms of the strong lines across the top—this is like a cross.”
True to O’Keeffe’s microscopic eye, the tree portraits are juxtaposed against a wall consisting exclusively of close-ups of leaves. The pieces were a result of O’Keeffe’s weekly treks up Prospect Mountain, during which she would stumble upon leaves and either paints them just as she found them or arrange them into a still life of sorts.
“She does this really interesting thing with telescoping in one part of the leaves as they overlap and really blowing them up, like she did with the flowers,” Hartley says. “So this thing that might be unnoticeable and familiar suddenly becomes very different. We notice small details when they’re made monumental; we notice the richness and subtlety of color that otherwise we might just glance over if she hadn’t helped us see it more clearly.”
Likewise, zooming out of the Lake George experience, gives breadth to O’Keeffe’s desert legacy.
“All the stuff that we think about as distinctly O’Keeffe—the things that make her abstraction that’s derived from modern sources, her sense of importance of place, all of that starts in Lake George,” Hartley says. “That’s where she really fine-tunes and develops the things that later become so distinctly O’Keeffe.”
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Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
217 Johnson St., 946-1000
Through Jan. 26, 2014