Georgia O’Keeffe, redesigned

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Todd Webb, Georgia O’Keeffe with Camera (1958), later printed, inkjet (© Todd Webb Archive, Portland, Maine, USA, courtesy Todd Webb Archive)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer is an exhibition of nearly 100 photographs, most of which were taken by O’Keeffe herself, exploring a new aspect of the painter’s process and working to deepen our knowledge of her person. Lisa Volpe, associate curator of photography at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, spent three years researching and analyzing photographs held in many O’Keeffe collections. She read the artist‘s diaries, systematically created timelines to match photographs with the artist’s extensive travels, and matched years to the images.

Volpe organizes the show around three themes: reframing, light and seasons. When reframing, we see “snapshots,” as O’Keeffe often called them, taken in quick succession as they framed a rock formation or roofline to create different compositions. In three photographs entitled “Lava Arch, Wai’ānapanapa State Park” (March 1939), we see O’Keeffe slightly altering her position, causing the arch to appear to move across the photographs.

Installation view from Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographeron view at the Denver Art Museum through November 6, 2022 (courtesy Denver Art Museum)

In each section, selected O’Keeffe paintings accompany the photographs to illustrate the section’s theme. In reframing we see “Shell and Old Shingle No. I” (1926), a still life in which the viewer clearly sees a leaf and a shell. Next to it we see “Shell and Old Shingle No. III” (1926), almost the same painting but with a shift in perspective so that it becomes a landscape: the gravel becomes a rock face and the shell in the foreground a silhouette of a desert hill. In these captivating moments, O’Keeffe’s photography comes alive in her paintings.

Georgia O’Keeffe, “North Patio Corridor” (1956–57), gelatin silver print (© Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, courtesy Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe)

The second theme, Light, features O’Keeffe’s photographs of her home in Abiquiú, New Mexico, such as North Patio Corridor. (1956-57), “Ladder on Studio Wall with White Shell” (1959-60) and “Salita Door, Patio” (1956-57). In these images, the Salita door becomes a black hole, and a bleached ladder leaning against a adobe wall casts a unique black shadow that appears to be as solid as the ladder itself. Here we see the painting “In the Patio VIII.” (1950) in which light takes on physical form as it cuts through a static, towering building. The building shifts into a formal landscape.

In the final Seasons section, we see O’Keeffe’s photographs of the same scene in different seasons. This section highlights her fascination with the street outside of her home. Next to the painting Road Past the View (1964) is a quote from O’Keeffe: ‘I had two or three snaps of it [the road] with a camera. For one of them, I rotated the camera at an acute angle to capture the entire street. It was by accident that I left the road seemingly up in the air, but it amused me and I began drawing and painting it as a new shape.”

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Waiʻanapanapa Black Sand Beach” (March 1939), gelatin silver print (© Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, courtesy Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe)

Throughout the exhibit are O’Keeffe’s cameras, her spotting kit, notes she made about proper shutter speeds in low light scrawled on a legal pad from The Waldorf-Astoria, as well as many pictures she took of friends has, or pictures she took with friends. Here, this exhibition also sheds light on aspects of her as a person through her creative process, offering a slight recast of O’Keeffe herself in changing light.

Installation view from Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographeron view at the Denver Art Museum through November 6, 2022 (courtesy Denver Art Museum)
Georgia O’Keeffe, “Roofless Room” (1959–60), gelatin silver print (© Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, courtesy Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe)
Georgia O’Keeffe, “Ladder Against Studio Wall with Black Chow (Bo-Bo)” (1959-60), Gelatin silver print (© Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Courtesy Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe)

Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer continues through November 6 at the Denver Museum of Art (100 West 14th Ave Parkway, Denver, Colorado). The exhibition was curated by Lisa Volpe.

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