TORONTO – “Men put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters,” said Georgia O’Keeffe, a woman as inspirational with her words as she was with the brush.
Born in 1887 in Sun Prairie, Wis., her productive life saw her receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the U.S.’s highest civilian award, bestowed by President Gerald R. Ford in 1977, and honored again in 1985 with the National Medal of Arts by President Ronald Reagan.
“O’Keeffe is America,” wrote an unknown journalist in 1927, a sentiment given credence by O’Keeffe herself, saying, “It is necessary to feel America, live America, love America and then work.” Today she is the sole North American woman artist with a museum dedicated to her legacy – the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M.
“Going global” is how curator Georgiana Uhlyarik described the 80 plus works making up the O’Keeffe exhibit running through July 30 at Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario.
“This exhibition is historic,” added Uhlyarik, “the first major retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work in Canada.”
Entry into O’Keeffe’s world begins by understanding her feeling that “to create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.” She chides herself for taking on New York City as backdrop, saying “Men haven’t done well with it.” Yet undaunted, working with her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, living on the Shelton Hotel’s 30th floor, she proceeds, proclaiming, “Today the city is something bigger, grander, more complex than ever before in its history.”
Her 1928 East River from the 30th Floor of the Shelton Hotel is a clear, precise work, with a hint of color, strategically placed into a riverscape that seems unremarkable. “We return to O’Keeffe not because we see something new,” said Uhlyarik, “but because we see something more.”
New York photographs by Stieglitz and a charcoal on paper drawing by O’Keeffe begin the big city segment. New York-Night shows skyscrapers, windows adorned with light and cars below with headlamps ablaze. Ritz-Tower, Night lays open clouds in blue streaks, partially eclipsing the moon, with the tower in the foreground.
A Woman (One Portrait) bares samples of 350 O’Keeffe photographs taken by Stieglitz, including nudes ultimately shown at his New York 291 gallery. The expo became a concern for O’Keeffe as critics considered her overtly sensual and sexual, and her work an expression of erotica.
“When people read erotic symbols into my paintings,” she said, denying the charge, “they’re really talking about their own affairs.”
After Stieglitz’s 1946 death she continued to be “much photographed,” asserting dominion over her image, often working with Ansel Adams, a close friend and traveling companion and “astutely reinvented her public persona,” writes Tate Modern curator Tanya Barson in her book "Georgia O’Keeffe."
O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1929 and continued visiting regularly, finally settling there in 1949. “There was no rain so the flowers didn’t come,” she said, shifting her attention to the landscape and bones. From the Faraway, Nearby conveys her bone fascination, an eclectic mass of “beautiful white things” as she called them, extending towards the heavens from a dead beast’s skull.
“It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me,” O’Keeffe said of the Cerro Pedernal, the mountain overlooking her home in Ghost Ranch, then a dude ranch and now a Presbyterian education and retreat center. “God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it,” she said. My Front Yard, Summer in vibrant color, portrays her “private mountain,” where her ashes were scattered on her 1986 passing.
“Oh, the sun was hot, and the wind was hard. I was just crazy about it all,” she said, citing her passion and enthusiasm for the Southwest, causing her to turn work into art. Her dedication is evident in Rusted Hills, Red Hills and Bones, and Purple Hills. Taos Pueblo is her rendering of mud-built, adobe architecture. Alongside is an Ansel Adams photograph, also of adobe architecture. Displayed in an adjacent case is a book by Adams, entitled Taos Pueblo. From her Ghost Ranch studio, captured in a photograph by Ralph Looney, O’Keeffe looks out on her “front yard.”
As O’Keeffe continued painting into her 70s, here her work is labeled Late Abstractions and Skyscapes. They may have been late, but their vigor was apparent. As was the seeing of an artist finding the extraordinary in what many would consider ordinary.
For on a New Mexico-bound flight, musing on the vista, she said, “The sky below was a most beautiful solid white. So wonderful I couldn’t wait to be home to paint it,” relaying to the world the joy that emanates from an artist at one with her work.