Glamorous Gotham: Georgia O’Keefe
Radiator Building at Night, New York, 1927
Enthralled by the barren landscape and expansive skies of the desert, Georgia O’Keefe would become chiefly known for paintings of flowers, rocks, shells, animal bones, and the quiet beauty of open skies and sun-drenched terrains. Yet, it is her paintings of New York city done in the 1920’s that have always captured my imagination and linger in memory.
The drama and excitement of the modern metropolis at that time in history was unmistakable, embodied in landmark skyscrapers like the American Radiator Building located at West 40th Street, in midtown Manhattan. Designed by Raymond Hood, the combined Gothic and modern styles in the design of the Radiator Building was massive, solid, and illustrious, an engineering feat of wonder erected to match the prosperity of the period.
Black brick on the frontage of the building (symbolizing coal) was prominently featured while other parts of the facade were covered in gold bricks (symbolizing fire). The entry was decorated with marble and black mirrors in a style reminiscent of an Ayn Rand dream. Ornamented and sculptured, it was an edifice of opulence, particularly after dark when the upper floors were illuminated with floodlights.
It was this vision of that building at night in the changing skyline of New York that O’Keefe captured in her wonderfully theatrical interpretation, “Radiator Building at Night.” Painted from her window on the thirtieth floor of the Shelton Hotel (some scholars dispute that, claiming it was the 28th floor penthouse) at 49th and Lexington, that she shared with her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, she detailed flooded lights illuminating the sky at right, and at left, a bright red marquee ablaze with the name “Stieglitz” in its glow.
Her painting of the Radiator in 1927 (the same year as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, tellingly) is remarkable for its color and for the depiction of the artificial light of the city night – the purple/blue tints of floodlights and the fluorescent whites of the office towers. There’s a touch of warm incandescence in windows here and there. The stylized smoky steam arising from the building at the right echoes the flipped curved cornices of the Radiator’s top floors. It’s pure theater.
City Night, 1926
The importance of the skyscraper at the time cannot be overlooked; it was considered a distinctly American “thing,” signifying symbols of modern technology. How it was to be represented in an accurate and aesthetically pleasing way became a challenge to photographers and painters alike in the New York art world. For artists like Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, for example, the mystique of the skyscraper was so great, it ultimately, became their muse.
Europeans visiting New York were equally fascinated with the architectural feats. “The appeal America exercised as the ideological reflection of anything inadmissible in ancient regime Europe” was possible because “America was free, it was unlimited in space, it abounded in natural resources and in money. It knew no tradition, it had no history.”
During those early years in New York, O’Keefe grew to know the many early American modernists who were part of Stieglitz’s circle of friends, including Demuth, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, Paul Strand and Edward Steichen. Strand’s photography, as well as that of Stieglitz and his many photographer friends, was instrumental in inspiring O’Keefe’s work (as evidenced below).
New York with Moon, 1925
While O’Keefe’s New York paintings bear a romantic character resembling that of the Romantic movement and its fascination for glowing celestial bodies and halos in mystical colors, her urban works are most closely associated with the American art movement of the 1920’s known as Precisionism, or Cubist Realism, a combination of Cubism and Realism.
The Shelton with Sunspots, 1926
Take her work entitled The Shelton with Sunspots, from 1926, for example, where the influence of romantic elements is portrayed from a photographic glare that is caused by not having a lens hood on the camera. The result is a painting in which the skyscraper appears to be a beacon of the divine, heralding the unearthly light of a deity.
East River from the Shelton, 1926
Hence, many critics found mystical meaning in her work that O’Keefe, herself, eschewed, claiming she had no tolerance for such faulty interpretations. In response to those misguided dreamers, she emphatically noted:
“The things they write sound so strange and far removed from what I feel of myself. They make me seem like some strange unearthly sort of creature floating in the air – breathing in clouds for nourishment – when the truth is that I like beef steak – and like it rare at that.”
East River from Hotel Shelton, 1928
She was considered the premier female artist of the 20th century, a title she considered sexist. Unusually private, O’Keeffe was rather bored by people and society, preferring to live and work in relative solitude. She was an intense, plainspoken woman who lived in the moment, focusing on the essence of things in her life as well as her art, and eliminating the superfluous.
New York Night, 1928 – 1929
“Filling a space
in a beautiful way.
That is what art
means to me.”
Photograph, Alfred Stieglitz, 1910
Earlier mention made fact of the influence of Paul Strand’s, and Stieglitz’s, photography on O’Keefe’s work. One of the clearest illustrations of that can be found in this Stieglitz photograph taken in 1910, entitled City of Ambition.
O’Keefe’s original painting above of the East River (5th image down) shows the sun and the sky in bright pastel colors delineating the drab and dramatic contrast to a grey city below that reeks of industrial smog and poisonous pollution.
While Stieglitz’s sparkling water appears in the foreground of his City of Ambition photograph, it, too, contrasts rather dramatically with a background teeming in dirt, grit, fumes and despair. Both O’Keefe’s painting and Stieglitz’s photograph speak of the anxiety a free spirit might feel, when living in a overpopulated and dirty city, when the soul yearns back to fresh air and sun-kissed places, west of the Hudson.
Painting: East River from the Shelton, 1926 [Black & White]
When O’Keefe’s painting of the East River is devoid of all color, rendering it in a black and white variation, you can see remnants of Stieglitz’s photograph forming the lower backdrop of her painting. While the painting and the photograph adhere to a similar composition and perspective, the theme of yearning both works evoke is identical.
It is nearly impossible to talk about the work of either O’Keefe or Stieglitz without mention of the other. The personal and professional union between these two iconoclastic talents lasted for more than a quarter of a century and to this day is considered one of the most fruitful and well-known collaborations of the modernist era.
Apart from their professional endeavors which will endure throughout time, their personal legacy will live on as well. Stieglitz’s photographs of O’Keefe taken from the spring of 1917 to 1937 “made her the most photographed woman of the 20th century, after Gretta Garbo.” During their lives together Stieglitz would make nearly 500 prints, 200 alone date from their first two years together.
The photographs taken in those first twenty four months document the most intense, passionate, erotic, intimate and complex relationship ever exchanged between a man and woman and recorded on film. Stieglitz’s portrait embraces the most public and private extremes of this extraordinary woman. One of my favorites from that time is below.
“I’ve been absolutely terrified
every moment of my life –
and I’ve never let it keep me
from doing a single thing
I wanted to do.”