Visual art is back in a big way at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s work as a photographer is one of their current special exhibits. Surprising and illuminating, this collection of her work shows another dimension of O’Keeffe’s artistic vision, one that is separate from her famous photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz.
O'Keeffe was one of the first women to gain critical acclaim from the art world in New York, and her simple, yet profound, images of the natural world allowed viewers to see the abstract in what was traditionally concrete. Most famous for her paintings, this is the first exhibit to concentrate primarily on her photography.
The layout of the exhibit is an interesting juxtaposition of her photographs, a few select paintings, and images taken of her by her friend and fellow photographer Todd Webb (1905-2000). It’s almost a collage of her---both behind and in front of a camera---with her paintings acting as a reminder that she used photos both as inspirations, as well as a way to capture natural images of what she had already painted. Her photography was woven into her other artistic endeavors, and the exhibition mirrors the way photography complemented her paintings.
O’Keeffe’s photographs were sometimes studies that were taken long after a painting was completed. Most times the images are works only for themselves: Polaroid snapshots of friends, the photo of a door, ladder, or a road, a glimpse of nature that captured her beloved Southwest, or even her New York abode, embellished by iconic totems of the western landscape.
Works like Antelope, (1943-46) exemplify O’Keeffe’s affinity for nature. Many of the exhibition's featured images were views near her home in New Mexico, from snow to sun and shrubs. The images are time capsules of not only the landscape she inhabited, but of her adventures: Glen Canyon in Utah and Arizona (sacred land to the Zuni, who considered it the place where humans emerged), the Black Sands of Maui, and White House Overlook and Spider Rock in the 1950s.
She has a series similar to Claude Monet’s water lilies and haystacks, but with photos: Big Sage, (1957) has its different versions, as do her Chow Chow dogs. And of course, flowers, as with the photographs in the Jimsonweed series of 1964-68. It’s all good, but even better when there is a painting to remind us of how reality was translated into art, as in White Flower, (1929). Sometimes the photos come first, often they come later --- even decades later.
The photographs of her (mostly) Southwestern surroundings are both juxtaposed and contextualized by her paintings and drawings. The drawings are minimalist, perhaps unfinished, but certainly not as powerful of an experience as the other works. However, they provide an outline of her sensibilities in terms of form and function.
As the wall labels encourage, O’Keeffe’s interest in “aesthetic order and emotional expression” proves true across her oeuvre. The most captivating part of the exhibition is seeing a painting such as Small Purple Hills, (1934) transform into a photograph nearly 40 years later. It feels magical as if the same images were still dramatic enough to keep capturing, even over decades.
From the 1950s to the 1970s, O’Keeffe took a variety of images, many of which experimented with light, shadow and the geometric dimensions of the domestic and natural worlds. The exhibition's design pays homage to O’Keeffe’s fascination with visual tropes such as window frames, ladders, long roads that lead your imagination over the horizon, and doors that can lead you in or out. Her photos, dominated by windows, doors, and roads, always lead to a reconsideration of what it means to look at the world around us.
Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston through January 17, 2022. For more information on tickets and museum hours, visit here.