Modern Nature Revealed

In this Q&A Timothy Anglin Burgard, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco curator in charge of American art, answers all your burning questions about Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, on view through May 11 at the de Young.

The entrance to the exhibition Modern Nature: Georgia O'Keeffe and Lake George

Many art lovers associate Georgia O’Keeffe with the Southwest, yet the focal point of the de Young exhibition is Lake George, in upstate New York. How did O’Keeffe become associated with this area?

Georgia O’Keeffe first visited Lake George in 1908, after winning a scholarship from the Art Students League in New York that allowed her to attend a summer retreat there. In 1918, soon after commencing a personal and professional relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, she returned to the lake, and from then until 1934 spent part of each year at his family’s estate.

The first gallery in the exhibition, featuring black and white photographs of Georgia O'Keeffe and Lake George

What kinds of works did O’Keeffe create at Lake George?

Working in her Lake George studio, which she nicknamed the “shanty,” O’Keeffe created more than two hundred works—including images of landscapes, trees, leaves, flowers, fruit, and architecture—that earned her both critical and popular acclaim when they were exhibited in New York City. Oscillating between representation and abstraction—often within a single series of works such as the Jack-in-the-Pulpit suite—the artist sought to evoke not merely the outward appearances of her subjects but also their inner natures.

An exploded view of a jack-in-the-pulpit flower in deep blacks and purples, surrounded by green leaves

Georgia O’Keeffe, American (1887—1986). Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. 2, 1930. Oil on canvas. The National Gallery of Art, Washington © 2013 National Gallery of Art, Washington

Were O’Keeffe’s paintings essentially derived from nature?

O’Keeffe was concerned more with the sensory experience of what she painted than with its literal representation, pointedly stating: “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things.” Many of her now-iconic flower paintings were created not from nature but from memory, either in her Lake George studio, or in her New York City apartment. O’Keeffe’s individual images are so convincing and compelling that we often overlook the intellectual component that is more apparent in series such as the Jack-in-the-Pulpit paintings, which progress from recognizable representation to near-abstraction.

Inside the gallery illustrating the series of jack-in-the-pulpit from figurative to abstract.

O’Keeffe’s complex relationship with Alfred Stieglitz is legendary. What drew them together?

O’Keeffe initially admired Stieglitz for his dual roles as both a pioneering photographer and a champion of European and American modernism. Even before their first meeting in 1916, O’Keeffe wrote, “I believe I would rather have Stieglitz like something—anything I had done—than anyone else I know.” Beginning in 1918, after Stieglitz convinced O’Keeffe to move to New York City, both artists felt that they had found kindred spirits in one another, and their personal relationship blossomed.

How did O’Keeffe and Stieglitz grow apart?

A few years after the pair wed in 1924, the relationship suffered from the stress of Stieglitz’s subsequent affair with a much younger woman. O’Keeffe later observed: “I believe it was the work that kept me with him though I loved him as a human being.” By the early 1930s, although the two remained married, O’Keeffe began spending more time in New Mexico, and her trips to Lake George diminished. However, in 1946, soon after Stieglitz died, O’Keeffe made one final trip to Lake George—to bury her husband’s ashes beneath a tree on the shore of the lake.

A leave-less tree at twilight set against an ombre sky of peach and blue.

Georgia O’Keeffe, American (1887—1986). The Chestnut Grey, 1924. Oil on canvas. Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, Minnesota © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

O’Keeffe’s iconic flower paintings are frequently subject to speculations regarding their potential symbolism. How did these interpretations originate?

When O’Keeffe commented on the origin of her flower subjects, she spoke of using her enlarged and cropped formats to compel busy New York City urban dwellers to stop and appreciate the beauty of flowers, which, like other aspects of nature, had been marginalized in an increasingly technological age. Unfortunately, Stieglitz’s scandalous 1921 exhibition of nude photographs of O’Keeffe, combined with a popular vogue for Freudian psychology, which encouraged such metaphoric readings, fostered numerous sexual interpretations of O’Keeffe’s flowers.

An exploded view of huge purple petunia blossoms

Georgia O’Keeffe, American (1887—1986). Petunias, 1925. Oil on board. Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, Museum purchase, Gift of the M. H. de Young Family, 1990.55 © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

What was O’Keeffe’s reaction to the psychological interpretations of her flower paintings?

O’Keeffe rejected such reductive readings, stating, “I made you take time to look at what I saw, and when you took time to really notice my flower, you hung all your associations with flowers on my flower, and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see—and I don’t.”

How do you account for O’Keeffe’s iconic status?

First and foremost, O’Keeffe’s works are exceptional examples of early American modernism. Second, O’Keeffe also earned the financial and critical support of Alfred Stieglitz, America’s most influential art arbiter in the first half of the 20th century. Third, her best-known works became nearly synonymous with a place—the American Southwest—that retains a romantic frontier aura of both historical and cultural authenticity. Fourth, feminists embraced O’Keeffe as a role model, even though she resisted being typecast as a “woman artist.” Fifth, she is one of the few American artists to have a museum devoted to preserving and promoting her work. Finally, O’Keeffe’s embrace of nature as the primary focus of her art, and her creation of idealized images that achieve a kind of platonic perfection, reaffirm our perennial ties to nature in an increasingly technological age.

A gallery shot featuring an imposing portrait of Georgia O'Keeffe blown up and looking down on the gallery formidably

Has O’Keeffe’s fame helped or hindered an appreciation of her work?

Like Andy Warhol, O’Keeffe is associated with a public persona that has threatened to obscure her artistic achievements. In part, this phenomenon may be traced to the fact that O’Keeffe was likely the most photographed artist in history. Alfred Stieglitz’s extended photographic portrait of his partner spanned two decades and numbered more than 300 photographs. Some of the earliest portraits, in which Stieglitz posed the artist in front of her artworks, commenced a process in which the artist and her works were conflated, or even seen as interchangeable.

How will this exhibition resonate with California residents?

O’Keeffe’s idealized depictions of nature, perfected at Lake George, helped to promote a respect and reverence for the natural world that is shared by contemporary viewers—especially in California, home to Yosemite Valley, the Sierra Nevada, Lake Tahoe and many other natural wonders. 

Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George, the first exhibition devoted to this critical period in the artist’s life and work, sets the New York and Lake George period on equal footing with the Southwest period, and reaffirms O’Keeffe’s stature as one of the greatest American modernists.