The American architectural theorist Claude Bragdon observed in 1925, “Eminent European critics, visiting these shores, are in the habit of declaring that the American Spirit expresses itself most eloquently in jazz music and in the skyscraper…Not only is the skyscraper the symbol of the American Spirit – restless, centrifugal, perilously posed—but it is the only truly original development in the field of architecture to which we can lay unchallenged claim.” ("The Shelton Hotel, New York," Architectural Record, July 1925, p. 1) In the decade following the First World War, the United States asserted itself as the world’s greatest economic power, with New York at its financial epicenter. Vanguard European artists, who had established Paris as the seat of Modernism, sought out New York as a haven during the war years. The newfound influence of the city, both financially and culturally, was expressed most visibly in an unprecedented construction boom and a dramatic new skyline. The skyscraper, itself a twentieth-century American phenomenon, was arguably the first product of American culture to attract sustained international attention. The skyscraper was a marvel of early twentieth century American engineering and an icon of modernity worthy of aesthetic response. Writing in 1923, the critic Henry Tyrrell boldly challenged artists to react to the dynamism of life among soaring steel structures: “New York, grandiose and glittering — the modern Wonder City of dynamic pulses, wireless, magnetism, electricity and tempered steel, of piled-up architecture like magic pinnacles of Alpine ice […] There she stands, matchless and overwhelming. Who shall paint her portrait?” (New York World, January 21, 1923)
Georgia O’Keeffe brilliantly answered this challenge, painting a powerful series of cityscapes between 1925 and 1929 that critics now regard as among the most satisfying, painterly, and memorable of her oeuvre. Painted in 1926, A Street is one of the most physically imposing and psychologically penetrating works of this celebrated group. It is both a personal and universal expression of the ambivalence of modern urban existence – the simultaneous glorification and criticism of the impressive yet overwhelming scale and energy of the city. With a linear precision and tonal contrast reminiscent of photography, O’Keeffe emphasizes the towering geometry of New York and its imposing skyscrapers. As with her flower paintings and the series of Lake George reflections that she produced during the 1920s, in A Street, she removes extraneous detail to focus on the formal qualities of her subject, an abstract organization of reality that functions as a profound outward expression of her inner life. Specifically, A Street serves as a highly personal and deeply felt impression of the burgeoning city during a period of extraordinary growth: “One can’t paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt.” (O’Keeffe, quoted in Sarah Whitaker Peters, Becoming O’Keeffe: The Early Years, New York, 1991, p. 277)
O’Keeffe adopts a street level perspective in which the viewer is enclosed by the sheer façades of the skyscrapers, which extend beyond the picture plane, creating a chasm through which the sky is visible. Although devoid of figures, she includes a single relic of contemporary society – a streetlamp – to anchor the composition. She reduces the towering skyscrapers to shadowy shapes, focusing on the claustrophobic sensation of their monumentality and visually echoing the viewer’s sense of anonymity and diminished stature in the burgeoning metropolis. This imbues the work with a sense of the surreal and unease that is reminiscent of the work of René Magritte and Giorgio di Chirico. O’Keeffe employs diagonal lines drawn from the edges toward the center, suggesting the horizontal sweep of canyon-like walls that presage her later fascination with and depictions of the New Mexico landscape. This extreme vertical sensation provokes an existential sense of awe and wonder that recalls Thomas Moran’s and Albert Bierstadt’s dramatic renderings of the American West and anticipates Wayne Thiebaud’s precipitous San Francisco cityscapes and Barnett Newman’s “zip” series. A keen observer, who often focused on the lesser-noticed aspects of human experience, O’Keeffe gives as much emphasis to the sky as she does to the architecture, imparting a strong presence to an element that is often largely defined by its absence. "I saw a sky shape near the Chatham Hotel where buildings were going up," O'Keeffe recalled. "It was the buildings that made this fine shape, so I sketched it and then painted it." (quoted in Katharine Kuh, The Artist's Voice: Talks with Seventeen Artists, New York, 1960, p. 191) She took this concept further later in 1926, creating the abstract skyscape, New York – Night. (Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, Florida) In a letter from 1926, O’Keeffe describes the significance of her street scenes: “I have two new paintings of New York that I think are probably my best paintings. They seem to surprise everyone.” (Letter to Blanche Matthias, March 1926) In part due to the strength and critical reception of these cityscapes, she was awarded numerous one-woman gallery exhibitions, and her first retrospective, Paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, opened at the Brooklyn Museum in 1927.
O’Keeffe’s fascination with the skyscraper began in 1924 when she and her husband, the influential photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, moved to an apartment building at 38 East 58th Street in Midtown Manhattan. It was here that she observed the construction of the Shelton Hotel at Lexington Avenue and 49th Street. Built by the architecturally ambitious developer James T. Lee, the Shelton claimed to be the tallest residential building in the world at its completion in 1924. Critics agreed that its picturesque 35-story façade and unusual setback design, influenced by a 1916 zoning law aimed to bring light and air to city streets, pointed the way of the future for the skyscraper and its design influenced a number of subsequent buildings including The Empire State Building and The Chrysler Building. Of the Shelton, the noted art critic Henry McBride remarked: “At night it looks as though it reached to the stars, and searchlights that cut across the sky back of it do appear to carry messages to other worlds.” (“O’Keeffe’s Recent Work,” The Dial, January 1928)
As exemplified in A Street, O'Keeffe's acute sense of the city’s height was undoubtedly enhanced by her desire to become one of the first artists, and indeed people, to live and work in a skyscraper. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz moved to the Shelton in 1925, where they took various rooms as available before settling into a suite on the hotel’s 30th floor. Her attraction to the top floors was twofold, with O'Keeffe drawn both to their expansive views of the city’s skyline and also to the sense of respite they offered from the bustle of the streets below – they provided the ability to simultaneously live within and above the thriving metropolis. O’Keeffe stated in a 1928 interview:
"I realize it’s unusual for an artist to want to work way up near the roof of a big hotel, in the heart of a roaring city, but I think that’s just what the artist of today needs for stimulus. He has to have a place where he can behold the city as a unit before his eyes but at the same time have enough space left to work. Yes, contact with the city this way has certainly helped me as no amount of solitude in the country could. Today the city is something bigger, grander, more complex than ever before in history. There is a meaning in its strong warm grip we are all trying to grasp. And nothing can be gained by running away. I wouldn’t if I could." (quoted in Sarah Whitaker Peters, Becoming O’Keeffe: The Early Years, New York, 1991, p. 278)
In a letter to the noted author Sherwood Anderson, Stieglitz echoes O’Keeffe’s sentiment: “We live high up in the Shelton Hotel […] — the wind howls and shakes the huge steel frame […]—All is so quiet except the wind—and the trembling shaking hulk of steel in which we live — It’s a wonderful place.” (Letter to Sherwood Anderson, December 9, 1925, quoted in Ibid.) Stieglitz took photographs of the East River through the window of the suite at the Shelton and it is possible that O’Keeffe found inspiration looking through her husband’s camera as she appropriated many techniques and elements inherent to photography in her cityscapes.
O’Keeffe and Stieglitz were not the only artists to respond to New York’s rapidly rising skyline. Among their peers, Edward Steichen took the developing cityscape as the subject of his photography, Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand produced Manhatta (1921), the first avant-garde film made in America and an ode to a day in the metropolis and Joseph Stella responded to mankind’s capacity for technical progress through urban imagery, creating the most iconic works of his career. As in the works of her male counterparts, O’Keeffe’s A Street communicates simultaneously the unbounded optimism and skeptical uncertainty of modern urban existence.
A Street is groundbreaking in its repudiation of the city as exclusively male subject matter. According to art historian Vivien Green Fryd: “Society at that time saw the city as a masculine domain that was created, built, managed, photographed, and painted by men. There was a tradition of figuring the skyscraper as implicitly masculine, and therefore phallic, that extended back to Louis Sullivan and before, when visual conventions of representation in portraiture and other genres routinely assigned phallic objects to males.” (“Georgia O'Keeffe's ‘Radiator Building’: Gender, Sexuality, Modernism, and Urban Imagery,” Winterthur Portfolio, vol. 35, no. 4, Winter, 2000, p. 280) O’Keeffe had made her initial reputation as a painter of sinuous abstractions and flowers, themes which early twentieth-century art critics had deemed appropriately feminine. When she began her cityscapes in 1925, Stieglitz cautioned her against what he considered a man’s topic: "I began talking about trying to paint New York. Of course, I was told that it was an impossible idea – even the men hadn't done too well with it." (Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 1976, n.p.) A Street is a self-assured and audacious rebuke of the New York art world’s longstanding patriarchy. It served as a powerful inspiration for Joan Mitchell’s rebellious cityscapes from the early 1950s, which similarly revolt against the stereotypical hyper-masculinity of Abstract Expressionism. A Street is a bold challenge to her male contemporaries and critics, including her husband, who instructed her not to paint the city. Confronted with O'Keeffe's street scenes during a visit to Stieglitz's gallery, Constantin Brancusi said admiringly, "There is no imitation of Europe here […] It is a force, a liberating free force.” (quoted in "America Holds Future of Art, Brancusi Says," Evening Union, December 19, 1927)
O’Keeffe, like many New Yorkers, felt great ambivalence towards her city. In a letter to Sherwood Anderson in November 1924, she offered a few choice words for New York: “cracked and torn and bent and a little moldy.” (Letter to Sherwood Anderson, February 11, 1924) Writing to her sister, Ida, in 1925, she continued to express an unfavorable view of the city: “It isn’t nice here—New York seems a queer place—and I wonder what business we have here.’” (Letter to Ida O'Keeffe, November 1925) While she sometimes felt distressed by the unavoidable truths of urban existence, her feelings continued to change throughout the 1920s. By 1928, she proclaimed her love for New York. As epitomized in A Street, O’Keeffe’s cityscapes reveal both her exhilaration and unease in a city that simultaneously inspires and oppresses its inhabitants. Herbert Seligmann concluded: "Her summation of Manhattan, unequalled in painting, has the rude thrust as well as the delicacy and glitter that distinguishes the city of America." (quoted in James Moore, "So Clear Where the Sun Will Come: Georgia O'Keeffe's Gray Cross with Blue," Artspace, Summer 1986, p. 35)
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