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Georgia O’Keeffe’s Unsung Role as Patron and Collector

Robert Grand
Sep 21, 2021 9:42PM

Portrait of Georgia O’Keeffe holding a clay pot outdoors, Abiquiu, New Mexico, 1974. Photo by Joe Munroe. Image via Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

Known for her evocative depictions of budding flowers, animal skulls, and pigment-perfect gradients of desert sunrises and sunsets, Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the few American painters prominent enough to become a household name. Truly at home in the desolate mountain ranges of New Mexico, as much as O’Keeffe portrayed herself as a recluse, no great painter exists in a vacuum; O’Keeffe was no exception. She had a close-knit group of artists and confidants that uplifted and inspired her.

This intricate network is the premise of the “The O’Keeffe Circle: Artist as Gallerist and Collector,” an intimate exhibition on view through March 2022 at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. Spread across two bedrooms of the historic home, this modest exhibition brings together a number of works from O’Keeffe’s close friends and key influences. Phil Archer, the museum’s Betsy Main Babcock Deputy Director and the exhibition’s curator, hopes that this unique framework gives viewers “a fuller image of the artist engaged with the art of her time,” dispelling the myth of O’Keeffe as a lone wolf and showcasing her cultural impact beyond the canvas.

Installation view of “The O’Keeffe Circle: Artist as Gallerist and Collector” at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, 2021. Photo by Aaron Canipe. Courtesy of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

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Most of the friendships highlighted in the show were established during O’Keeffe’s time living in New York City from the late 1910s through the early ’30s. During that time, her career was burgeoning and her relationship with noted photographer and dealer Alfred Stieglitz began to flourish. Determined to bring European ideas and aesthetics to America, Stieglitz is often credited as the puppeteer pulling all the strings directing this group of ragtag post-war artists. His innovative art space Little Galleries of the Photo-Secession (more commonly known by its address 291) was among the first to bring Matisse, Picasso, and Cézanne stateside and introduced collectors and art aficionados to the tenets and aesthetics of European modernism. With its exhibitions, along with the almost evangelical passion of its founder, 291 (and Stieglitz’s subsequent galleries, the Intimate Gallery and An American Place) also helped shepherd a new generation of American artists to the forefront, including Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and O’Keeffe.

Marrying Stiegtlitz in 1924, O’Keeffe took an active role in the various galleries and social groups that surrounded them. She was an indomitable force that others in the scene respected, valued, and trusted. The artist Arthur Dove once wrote that O’Keeffe was “doing without effort what all we moderns have been trying to do.” She helped install exhibitions and offered curatorial advice, her keen eye being an invaluable asset and great balance to Stieglitz’s fervent approach. Her efforts were crucial to the success of 291 as well as Stieglitz’s later galleries, and were instrumental in the spreading of modernism across the United States more broadly.

Charles Demuth
Roses, 1926
Godel & Co.

At Reynolda House, the exhibition spotlights actual works from friends and artists O’Keeffe held dear, accompanied by well-researched wall labels that chart O’Keeffe’s influence and share stories about her deep connections with these influential makers. The show offers a glimpse of early modernism in America while shining a light on the integral role of lovers, partners, and companions in an artist and curator’s practice that’s often unattributed and unacknowledged in history. The title of the exhibition itself is a nod to the “Stieglitz circle”—an art historical nickname for this particular group of artists that tends to perpetuate the narrative that Stieglitz was at the center of all of these relationships.

O’Keeffe, however, was just as central to this circle as Stieglitz was, forming tighter bonds with a select few. Charles Demuth, for instance, was one of her closest friends; he was more congenial, exciting, and entertaining than the stoic and serious artists making up a majority of the 291 group. The two were both outsiders to the established order––Demuth was gay, open about his sexuality in a way that was rare for the time––and they found comfort in one another, their alliance providing a foil to the other’s dry, intellectual approach to artmaking. A testament to their bond, Demuth left all his oil paintings to O’Keeffe when he passed, trusting his entire oeuvre in her care.

Marsden Hartley was another artist O’Keeffe thoroughly admired, and she once wrote that his work was akin to “a brass band in a small closet.” The two were deeply influenced by their local landscape and a sense of place, sharing an appreciation for regions outside major cities and depicting the sublime in styles that were emotionally and formally resonant as opposed to realistic and exacting.

History’s reliance on a clear, easy-to-digest narrative of Stieglitz as the center point of the modernist art world is partially to blame for O’Keeffe’s lack of acknowledgment. Stieglitz himself was a fierce advocate for her, and their relationship was built on a sense of mutual respect—when he first saw her works, he famously exclaimed, “Finally, a woman on paper!” In his role as curator and dealer, Stieglitz lobbied for collectors and curators to hold O’Keeffe and her work in the same regard as the other modern masters, all male, that claimed space on 291’s walls. He was never shy about his admiration for O’Keeffe, in letters filled with purple prose and sentiments that describe a man hopelessly in love. To illustrate this point, the Reynolda’s wall text begins with an epigraph from Stieglitz: “She is the Spirit of 291, not I.” Stieglitz would echo this sentiment at An American Place, writing in a 1934 letter: “The Place comes before all—and Georgia is of The Place.”

The second room of “The O’Keeffe Circle” focuses on the artist’s personal collection, showcasing the art that she herself lived with and illuminating her approach to acquiring; above all, it appears that she cherished simplicity. Reynolda specifically highlights an Arthur Dove painting, Dancing (1934), and works by the Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige, who influenced her style much more than the European modernists that enamored her peers. The exhibition also features an akari paper lantern, modeled after one gifted to the artist by Isamu Noguchi. This lamp was one of the only light sources in O’Keeffe’s home, aside from her large picture windows—one can imagine the mood once the gallery lights are dimmed. O’Keeffe also owned a large Calder mobile, a crown jewel that often appears in the background of portraits of the artists.

Installation view of “The O’Keeffe Circle: Artist as Gallerist and Collector” at the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, Winston-Salem, 2021. Photo by Aaron Canipe. Courtesy of the Reynolda House Museum of American Art.

A testament to their close bond, Calder once gifted O’Keeffe a brass brooch, spun into a curlicue and connected with the letters O and K. The artist often wore this pin clasped to her collar, appearing like the pendant of a bolo tie, because she admired its abstract and somewhat organic form. In 1959, O’Keeffe had a replica made in silver to match her graying hair. The facsimile—manufactured not by Calder but by an artisan in India whom she met on her travels—cost her five dollars, and she exclusively wore this version for the rest of her life.

Though portraits of O’Keeffe often feature her alone in the vast desert landscapes of New Mexico, these moments were often captured by close friends like Ansel Adams; O’Keeffe, in fact, was never wholly alone. “The O’Keeffe Circle” triumphs in bringing new truths to the surface by foregrounding the artist’s role as a patron of the arts and a pillar of support for those around her. The exhibition makes evident that the bricks making up many influential endeavors—from a gallery like 291 to more contemporary institutions across the world—are laid by many hands.

Robert Grand
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Jenna Gribbon, Luncheon on the grass, a recurring dream, 2020. Jenna Gribbon, April studio, parting glance, 2021. Jenna Gribbon, Silver Tongue, 2019