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When Georgia O’Keeffe lived in town

When Georgia O’Keeffe lived in town

You think you know an artist.

Georgia O’Keeffe, the mother of American modernism, painted skulls and flowers, often in disarmingly sensual close-up, as well as the monumental desert landscape surrounding her home and studio in rural New Mexico.

While that is true, it is only part of the story. A fuller account of O’Keeffe’s story is told in “Georgia O’Keeffe: ‘My New Yorks,'” the Art Institute of Chicago’s summer blockbuster edited by Sarah Kelly Oehler and Annelise K. Madsen. The exhibition, which includes photographs, sketches, pastels, a wealth of archival advertisements and magazines, as well as more than fifty paintings, reveals that the great modernist was for decades a Manhattanite, a resident of skyscrapers as well as a painter of them.

Born in 1887 on a farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, O’Keefe lived in New York for several years before putting brush to canvas. She first arrived in the fall of 1907 to attend the Art Students League, after which she spent the next ten years working as a commercial artist, teaching art and continuing her artistic studies in Chicago, Charlottesville, Amarillo and back in Manhattan, where she settled permanently in 1918 at the invitation of her future husband, the prominent photographer and gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz. But it wasn’t until 1925, when she and Stieglitz moved to a high-rise apartment, that the metropolis’s flourishing architecture began to appear in her artwork.

O’Keeffe was already well known and praised by critics for her enlarged depictions of flowers, a theme considered suitably feminine. Stieglitz’s photographic portraits of her, many of them nude, contributed to the sexualized interpretation her work often received. What better way to combat those prejudices than by tackling the manliest topic of all: Manhattan’s high-rises and canyons?

The AIC shows her first effort, the vibrant ‘New York Street with Moon’ from 1925. In this sharply vertical cityscape, O’Keeffe carefully observes the city sky from the point of view of a pedestrian gazing upward. The sky appears graphically reshaped by the tops of tall buildings standing out monolithically in the twilight. The moon glows behind billowing clouds and the artificial street lights shine even brighter. This is not about the facts of the architecture, but about how the city makes one feel.

To O’Keeffe’s disappointment, Stieglitz declined to include that painting in “Seven Americans,” a group show at his gallery that year. Instead, he chose thirty other examples of her recent work, including a cloudscape, flower and vegetable still lifes, abstractions of lakes, and a terribly strange image of the shed he used as a darkroom in his Lake George summer home. The curators have put together a representative selection and hung it next to ‘New York Street with Moon’. The gesture, a first, succeeds as a feminist corrective, but so did the fact that the painting was sold the following year, on the very first day it was finally exhibited, during O’Keeffe’s annual solo exhibition.

O’Keeffe continued to be inspired by her frequent walks through downtown Manhattan and the extraordinary buildings that rose all around her. Chief among these was the Shelton Hotel, a behemoth that took up the entirety of Lexington Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets, the tallest residential tower in the world when it opened in 1923. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz lived there off and on for a while. decade, and it is the subject of her finest New York painting, “The Shelton with Sunspots, NY,” and of one of her dullest, “Shelton Hotel, NY, No. 1,” both painted in 1926. “No. 1” is brown and dull, where “Sunspots” dazzles with streaming smoke and clouds, glistening points of light and a brilliant glare from the sun eating into the side of the towering building. Neither canvas feels more or less true to the city than the other.

O’Keeffe and Stieglitz continued to move up the building, eventually preferring a 30th-floor apartment with commanding views in multiple directions. The exhibition includes a his and hers gallery of the results, with her relatively detailed paintings of the industrial East River on one side and his not entirely dissimilar photographic prints on the other. It’s unclear what is to be gained by presenting Stieglitz’s urban compositions here, in a show that aims to validate O’Keeffe’s, given the decades of sexist art history that have seen only his influence on her.

More difficult to fathom is the show’s location in the cavernous Regenstein Hall. O’Keeffe may be as big an artist as they come, but her work is usually small or medium in size, and it suffers from being spread out, bloated, and divided into unfillable dead spaces. The exhibition is overcrowded, yet it feels empty. The AIC has made this mistake before.

Anyway, the show is great, and anyone who cares at all about modern painting should see it. Some groups of artworks are thematic – window views here, geometric abstractions there – but the most illuminating are the groups that mix it all up. O’Keeffe presented these echo gallery arrangements at that time, including in “Seven Americans” and a 1930 exhibition of paintings made in New Mexico, New York and Lake George, after her life-changing first summer in Taos. Glowing skyscraper is hung next to winding dead tree, moody mesa, cow skull, sunset cross, desert abstraction, multi-storey adobe houses. The Brooklyn Bridge is nearby. The surprise may be that O’Keeffe painted urban scenes at all, but the real revelation is how much meaning her subjects have together.

Lori Waxman is a freelance critic

“Georgia O’Keeffe: ‘My New Yorks’” runs through Sept. 22 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., 312-443-3600, artic.edu