Georgia O’Keeffe photography exhibition begins national tour in Houston

Georgia O’Keeffe is a groundbreaking figure of American modernism, widely recognized for her paintings of New York skyscrapers, radical depictions of flowers, and stark landscapes of the American southwest. Less known is that she quietly honed a photography practice just as distinct as, yet complementary to, her paintings and drawings. This October, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, presents the first exhibition devoted to O’Keeffe’s photographic practice with the debut of “Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer.”

Organized in partnership with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, the exhibition reveals the wider scope of the artist’s career through some 90 photographs from a previously unstudied archive—a discovery led by MFAH associate curator of photography Lisa Volpe. Photographs in the exhibition will be complemented by 17 paintings and drawings of landscapes, flowers, and still lifes from public and private collections across the country. “Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer” will be on view in the Upper Brown Pavilion of the MFAH Caroline Wiess Law Building from Sunday, October 17, 2021 through Sunday, January 23, 2022 before travelling to the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts; the Denver Art Museum; and the Cincinnati Art Museum.

“Georgia O’Keeffe has long been the subject of exhibitions, portraiture, and volumes of scholarship. She captivated the art world with her works on paper and canvas, yet her photography has never been studied or known despite being essential to her practice,” Gary Tinterow, Director, the Margaret Alek Williams Chair, MFAH, said. “We are pleased to present this revelatory exhibition and expand appreciation of one of the most innovative and expressive artists our culture has produced.”

While Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) forged a career as one of the most significant painters of the 20th-century, she also had a lifelong connection to photography. Captured on film throughout her life –in early family photos, travel snapshots, and portraits by a cavalcade of photographic artists including her husband, Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946) –O’Keeffe was no stranger to the medium. She expressed her unique perspective through all aspects of her life, and by the time she began her photographic practice in the mid-1950s, her singular identity and artistry were well developed.

“Georgia O’Keeffe, Photographer” is the culmination of three years of research led by Volpe, who analyzed hundreds of works in different collections and identified more than 400 photographic images by O’Keeffe. Volpe attributed, dated, and catalogued the photographs by examining small details in the images and analyzing the artist’s distinct style.

“In her 1976 book, O’Keeffe mentions her use of photography. Yet her mastery of painting stymied any research into this area for decades. It was a part of her artistic practice waiting to be examined,” Volpe said. “This exhibition reveals the ways in which she used photography as part of her unique and encompassing artistic vision.  She claimed the medium for herself and her own artistic use—a radical act late in her career that begs for continued scholarship.” 

The exhibition is organized around key tenets of O’Keeffe’s photographic approach—reframing, the rendering of light, and seasonal change.

Reframing views through the lens of her camera, Georgia O’Keeffe saw her environment as an array of possible shapes and forms. Moving from right to left, angling the camera from high to low, or turning it vertically and horizontally, she composed and recomposed her photographs to find harmonious compositions. Prints from O’Keeffe’s serial captures of the Natural Stone Arch near Lehoʻula Beach, ʻAleamai, Hawaii are a highlight, demonstrating the artist’s intuitive search for the ideal relationship of expressive forms. On paper, canvas, or in a photograph, dappled light and dark shadows are not merely fleeting effects for O’Keeffe. They provide weighty and essential forms. Sensitive to this formal potential, the artist often photographed the same view throughout the day to create varying compositions. A striking example is O’Keeffe’s 1964 Forbidding Canyon, a series of five Polaroids that capture changing light between two rock faces.

Photographs of her beloved Chow Chows also express such possibilities, contrasting dark dog fur against the sun-washed landscape to find the tension between depth, flatness, realism, and abstraction. 

O’Keeffe also explored seasonal changes by photographing her environment of evolving foliage and light year-round. Her photographs of the Chama River and a kiva ladder in her New Mexico home capture changes in vegetation, precipitation, and sunlight. Similarly, O’Keeffe regularly photographed the jimsonweed around her home, watching as the trumpet-like flowers obeyed both the cycle of the seasons and a shorter daily cycle, opening in the afternoon and closing with sunrise, from late summer until first frost. O’Keeffe’s jimsonweed prints signal the artist’s ongoing fascination with the transformations of nature.

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