Let’s be real. When most of us think Georgia O’Keeffe, what immediately comes to mind are her iconic flower close-ups and the assumption that they refer to female anatomy— a suggestion popularized by Steglitz and still widely believed despite her life long denial such associations. But maybe you 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.
In 1925 O’Keeffe felt pigeonholed by her peers, clients and critics. She was stuck in the role of producing feminist art and all people would say about her work was that it alluded to a woman’s physical and sexual nature. This is mainly because of the way Stieglitz managed her career, marketing her work for her as a scandalous representation of vaginas and female sexuality. Feeling stuck and frustrated by reviews and limitations to “woman art,” she chose to take on an entirely new subject stating 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.” And so, when she chose to paint the sky scrapers of New York and debuted these paintings she was met with harsh criticism for her work and of course disapproval from Steglitz. It was not for a women to paint architecture, this was a masculine subject better suited to a man’s interpretation— after all what to women know about architecture? *rolls eyes*
My favorite of her cityscapes series is City Night from a 1926. It is just so fantastically simple, so abstract that it is almost purely shape and the dimensions defined more by the push and pull of color than structure. This painting, to me, seems to illustrate the enormity, the all encasing, overwhelming and sometimes oppressive feelings large cities can impose. But other paintings feature buildings with illuminated windows that shine through the dark sky brighter than the stars. These seem peaceful to me, comforting like a nightlight that will never fail. All of the paintings are at night or late dusk rendered in luscious, deep blues and rich blacks with points of light that lead you through a composition of voluminous shapes.
O’Keeffe herself is elusive about what the apintings mean to her. But the choice she made to paint them was surely a decision to step outside of the restricitions imposed on her by society and even if she was met with no support I do beieve that in the end the paintings are a success and the images evoke powerful responses from the viewers, regardless of how they assume O’Keeffe should paint.