The exclusive West Coast presentation at the de Young Museum in San Francisco of “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George” is the first large show to examine the body of work that O’Keefe (1887-1986) created based on her experiences at the New York lake.
From 1918 to 1934, O’Keeffe lived part of each year at the family estate of photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, her lover and eventual husband.
The 36-acre property on Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains was a rural retreat for the artist who spent summers and autumns painting there, returning to New York City to show the fruits of her labor in winter and spring.
There she developed many of the subjects that became a mainstay of her art, from oversized flowers to fruits of the garden to vibrant paintings of trees and fallen leaves.
During this highly productive period, she created more than 200 paintings on canvas and paper (55 are on view at the de Young) that brought O’Keeffe her first critical and popular acclaim.
Long before she became the high priestess of the desert in the Southwest, she began to define her personal style at Lake George, applying modernist principles to images derived from her strong connection to the Earth and its products.
As this show demonstrates, O’Keeffe was at her best when most abstract. Her bold yet simplified paintings of petunias, canna lilies and apple blossoms are deservedly acclaimed, but a series of paintings of jack-in-the-pulpits, which begin in a nearly realistic mode and transform into nearly pure abstractions, exemplify the power of her reductive methodology. They also make it all too clear why Stieglitz and others attributed sexual connotations to her flower paintings.
Less compelling are her paintings of apples, alligator pears and corn from her garden. Her paintings of trees on the Stieglitz property, on the other hand, are some of her strongest, ranging from the dark and menacing “Tree with Cut Limb, 1920” and the powerful “The Old Maple, Lake George, 1926” to the joyous, cut-loose arabesques of “White Birch, 1925,” with its white branches intertwining on a field of vibrant yellow.
Similarly stirring is “Grey Tree, Lake George, 1925” which calls up comparisons with Piet Mondrian’s early tree images.
In addition to trees, O’Keeffe gave us many prepossessing images of leaves she gathered on the estate. In some of these, the leaves are torn or disintegrating, which some have interpreted as relating to her deteriorating relationship with Stieglitz.
“Brown and Tan Leaves, 1928” presents a large leaf with torn edges juxtaposed to a medium-sized leaf and a small leaf, a reference Erin B. Coe in her catalog essay attributes to an affair that Stieglitz was having at the time with a younger woman.
“Dark and Lavender Leaves, 1931” seems to signal even more strife with the edges of the large dark leaf eaten away and the delicate lavender leaf at the center nearly subsumed.
The show also includes abstracted images of barns on the property, which some have seen as symbols of enclosure and restraint, feelings O’Keeffe may have been experiencing as she longed for the independence she ultimately found in the Southwest after her move to New Mexico in 1949.
While dedicated O’Keeffe fans will enjoy this show, it is not without some flaws. The show is padded with blowups of Stieglitz photos of O’Keeffe, which certainly helped seal her image in the public’s mind but take up a lot of space that could have been devoted to more of O’Keeffe’s work.
There are also many engravings of Lake George by various artists of lesser reputation but only a few of O’Keeffe’s images of the lake, and none of those is very striking.
The show does include some works by other noted artists – Vassily Kandinsky, photographer Imogen Cunningham, and the Japanese woodcut artist Hiroshige – for comparison with O’Keeffe’s efforts, but they are a small addition to the show.
The exhibition was curated by Coe, chief curator of the Hyde Collection in Glen Falls, N.Y., and Barbara Guhler Lynes, former curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M.
The timed and ticketed show will continue through May 11.