Let’s be real. When most of us think Georgia O’Keeffe, what immediately comes to mind are those iconic flower close-ups, now impossible to separate from the female anatomy no matter how O’Keeffe herself felt about such associations. Perhaps you might also consider her paintings of the American Southwest, the desert landscapes and animal skulls that characterized her later career. Less widely known, however, is a period from 1925 to 1930 in which O’Keeffe turned to New York City and its skyscrapers for inspiration—in my mind one of the most shocking breaks with expectation of all time.
Like Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe baring all onstage in Equus or Charlize Theron’s decidedly unglamorous turn in Monster, O’Keeffe’s cityscapes reflect a desire to escape being pigeonholed into a specific niche, namely that of a “woman artist.” By 1925 O’Keeffe had achieved great success, in large part due to the support of Alfred Stieglitz, to whom she was married in 1924. As the sole female member of Stieglitz’s elite circle of modern artists, O’Keeffe’s work was praised for the very fact that it was perceived as being so definitively feminine and evocative of her own sexuality. She had begun to resent this typecasting, however, a frustration that led her, much to Stieglitz’s distaste, to take on the New York City skyscraper, in all its cold, industrial, phallic glory, as her newest subject. In one of my favorite quotes, she declared that she wanted to be “so magnificently vulgar that all the people who have liked what I have been doing would stop speaking to me.”
The paintings themselves are fantastic in their simplicity. A personal favorite, City Night (pictured above), a 1926 painting I first encountered at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, uses just a few basic shapes and a minimalist color palette to achieve a slightly claustrophobic perspective, making the viewer acutely aware of the overwhelming scale of the buildings closing in around them. As in her flower paintings, O’Keeffe has the ability to take something completely familiar and, by focusing in on its essential shapes and curves, give an abstract quality to the most recognizable of subject matters.
It’s never entirely clear how she feels about the city; while I get a sense of isolation and powerlessness from City Night, her 1927 piece Radiator Building—Night, New York (left) to me seems to show the city in a much more favorable light, with the buildings’ illuminated windows suggesting the people inside, and the head-on perspective putting the viewer in a more open space.
Whatever your feelings on O’Keeffe, New York, or Modern Art, for that matter, these paintings are undeniably innovative, influential, and one of the best instances of sticking it to the man in art history. So go ahead, hang that poster of Light Iris in your dorm room, but next time you visit a museum, take some time and check out a different side of O’Keeffe.