Lot 39
  • 39

Georgia O'Keeffe 1887-1986

Estimate
2,000,000 - 3,000,000 USD
bidding is closed

Description

  • Georgia O'Keeffe
  • After A Walk Back of Mabel's
  • oil on canvas

Provenance

The Downtown Gallery, New York
Dr. and Mrs. William R. Brown, Media, Pennsylvania, 1955
Dr. and Mrs. Paul Todd Makler, Merion, Pennsylvania, 1965
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, gift, 1967
Acquired by the present owner, 1997

Exhibited

New York, An American Place, Georgia O'Keeffe: 27 New Paintings, New Mexico, New York, Lake George, Etc., February-March 1930, no. 8
Des Moines, Iowa, Des Moines Art Center, The Artist's Vision, February-March 1952, no. 53
Washington, D.C., National Museum of American Art, The Art of New Mexico, 1900-1945: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe, 1986, no. 191, p. 165, illustrated in color
Toronto, Canada, McMichael Canadian Art Collection; Santa Fe, New Mexico, Museum of Fine Arts; Vancouver, Canada, Vancouver Art Gallery; Washington, D.C., National Museum of Women in Art, Carr, O'Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own, June-September 2001, pp. 242-244, illustrated in color
Santa Fe, New Mexico, The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Photographs by Alfred Stieglitz: A Gift from the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation, April 2003-January 2004

Literature

Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 63, no. 36, illustrated, October 1967
Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait, New York, 1978, illustrated pl. 52
Barbara Buhler Lynes, Georgia O'Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, Connecticut, 1999, vol. I, no. 680, p. 409, illustrated in color
Sarah Greenough, Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and his New York Galleries, Washington, D.C., 2001, p. 454, illustrated
Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, In Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 2004, p. 300
Joseph S. Czestochowski, Georgia O'Keeffe: Visions of the Sublime, Memphis, Tennessee, 2004, p. 5, illustrated
Susan Danly, Georgia O'Keeffe and the Camera: The Art of Identity, New Haven, Connecticut, 2008, illustrated with the artist p. 58

Catalogue Note

During the early decades of the 20th century, a great many artists gravitated towards New Mexico: its warm, clean air was a common prescription for the ill, the vastness of the landscape provided a refuge from the architectural steel canyons of city life, and the cultures and exoticism of the Native American and Hispanic populations offered new inspiration and subject matter.

Georgia O'Keeffe first visited Santa Fe by chance in 1917.  On their way back to Texas from a trip to Colorado, O'Keeffe and her sister Claudia were rerouted through Santa Fe, as floodwaters had ravaged a bridge on the normal train route.  O'Keeffe studied the terrain outside the train car's window and remarked in a letter to friend and photographer Paul Strand that "the nothingness is several times larger than in Texas," noting too the brilliance and uniqueness of the New Mexico light and sky. Despite her immediate attraction to the place, she did not return to New Mexico for over a decade.

A letter O'Keeffe wrote in 1925 to Mabel Dodge Luhan, the wealthy socialite and art patron, opened the door for her second visit to New Mexico. O'Keeffe had met Luhan in New York, and though they traveled in the same artistic circles, they were little more than acquaintances. When, in 1925, O'Keeffe read what Luhan had written about actress Katherine Cornell, however, she was spurred to send her a note: "About the only thing I know about you – from meeting you – is that I know I don't know anything... - except that I have never felt a more feminine person – and what that is I do not know – so I let it go at that till something else crystallizes. Last summer when I read what you wrote about Katherine Cornell I told Stieglitz I wished you had seen my work – that I thought you could write something about me that the men cant – What I want written – I do not know – I have no definite idea of what it should be – but a woman who has lived many things and who sees lines and colors as an expression of living – might say something that a man cant – I feel there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore – Men have done all they can do about it." O'Keeffe closed that note to Luhan with "And kiss the sky for me – You laugh – But I loved the sky out there" (Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, 1981, p. 180). Luhan's resulting critique of her art was not precisely the feminist praise O'Keeffe was looking for, but nevertheless the two established a friendship and Mabel invited her to Taos.

Personal matters kept O'Keeffe at home, and she did not make it to Taos until 1929. She underwent surgery to remove a benign tumor in her breast in 1926, and had a particularly difficult time recovering from a second surgery in 1927. By 1928, Dorothy Norman had entered Stieglitz's life and her dalliances with O'Keeffe's husband were a secret to no one. O'Keeffe was also feeling pressure to expand her artistic portfolio. The series of skyscraper pictures she created beginning in 1925 were successful, but O'Keeffe commented that she was growing frustrated with a sense of being "cramped" – forced into painting canvases that fit the New York vernacular and the small hanging spaces in her leading patrons' apartments. O'Keeffe had noted in 1926 that "Where you are makes no difference – so long as you have the peace –and the urge– for work." By 1929 the peace was gone, and the urge was diminishing. The wide-open skies and endless desert of the American Southwest offered O'Keeffe the freedom she craved.

O'Keeffe had heard glowing reports of New Mexico from several other members of the Stieglitz group who had visited Luhan in Taos. Marsden Hartley claimed that the "red man's primitive bond with nature" was "vastly superior" to that of New Yorkers. Paul and Rebecca Strand had stayed with Luhan in 1926 and "felt renewed by the freshness of the scenery and the exotic residents." In March of 1929, Strand exhibited photographs of his trip to northern New Mexico at Stieglitz's Intimate Gallery. Hunter Drohojowska-Philp notes "Seeing the open landscape in Strand's photographs revived O'Keeffe's memories of her years in Texas. Around that time, in two abstract paintings of vertical panels, O'Keeffe returned to southwestern hues of red, orange, black and brown" (Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, 2004, p. 294). Coincidentally, the Honorable Lady Dorothy Brett moved into O'Keeffe and Stieglitz's building that same year. Lady Brett had spent a number of years at the Luhan compound with noted author D.H. Lawrence and his wife, and was enthusiastic about Taos. When Luhan came to New York that winter, she again extended her invitation to O'Keeffe and Stieglitz. O'Keeffe eagerly accepted this time, though Stieglitz's health was not good enough to travel. Rebecca Strand suggested that she and O'Keeffe go west together, allaying their husbands concerns about either traveling alone. Beck, as she was known, was also suffering from a strained marriage, and despite the fact that each was involved with the other's spouse earlier in the decade, they were able to put aside their differences and bond over their shared discontent.

In April of 1929, 'Beck' and O'Keeffe set out by rail to make the journey to New Mexico.  As soon as O'Keeffe arrived, she penned a letter to her friend Henry McBride:  "I never feel at home in the East like I do out here...I feel like myself—and I like it" (Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, 1981, p. 189).  Though she planned to be back in New York by July 1st to join Stieglitz for their usual summer visit to his family home in Lake George, she remained in New Mexico until late August.

Invigorated by her new surroundings, she adopted the New Mexican landscape- boulders, bones, mountains- to create large-scale, expansive canvases in her signature style. O'Keeffe noted that it "took time" to get to know a place, and some of her earliest subject matter gravitated towards the landmarks already identified by earlier painters and photographers. She painted the desert, the mountains, the Penitente crosses that dotted the landscape, as well as the pueblo buildings that were popular tourist destinations. She made a few still lifes of local artifacts, such as the Wooden Virgin (1929, Private collection), and even tried to paint the local Indian dances, their whirling movement and costumes in purely abstract terms (At the Rodeo, New Mexico, 1929, Fukuoka Cultural Foundation, Japan).

After a Walk Back of Mabel's was painted during this first trip to Taos, which O'Keeffe later stated was "one of [her] best painting years."  While the exact location is unknown, the work was likely painted near Luhan's estate in Taos. O'Keeffe, Beck, and Mabel's husband Tony Luhan, a Taos Pueblo Indian, made a number of driving tours and expeditions on horseback to visit areas that were often restricted to tourists. On these excursions O'Keeffe camped in the wilderness where she observed the area's undulating vistas, ancient geological contours and intense sunlight. While it certainly is possible that the central form of O'Keeffe's painting is a specific rock, it is more likely a broad reference to the shapes and colors she encountered during this first visit.

Like her "Black Cross" series, painted the same year, he strong central verticality of After a Walk Back of Mabel's suggests a natural progression from her seminal series of New York skyscrapers which she had concluded the year before. Her choice of the American flag's red, white and blue colors for the background lends itself to a larger ongoing discussion taking place in the early decades of the twentieth century, as musicians, writers, and artists, notably those in Stieglitz's circle, were seeking to define an indigenous American art form. Though O'Keeffe was not at the forefront of these discussions, O'Keeffe's choice of subject matter and palette offers a view of America different from the intellectual, Manhattan-centric vision made fashionable by the international avant-garde. 

O'Keeffe used this same "American" palette in only one other picture, Cow Skull – Red White and Blue, 1931, which she later donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Reflecting back on this painting towards the end of her life, she wrote:

"As I was working I thought of the city men I had been seeing in the East. They talked so often of writing the Great American Novel – The Great American Play – the Great American Poetry. I am not sure that they aspired to the Great American Painting. Cézanne was so much in the air that I think the Great American Painting didn't even seem a possible dream. I knew the middle of the country – knew quite a bit of the South – I knew the cattle country – and I knew that our country was lush and rich. I had driven across the country many times. I was quite excited over our country and I knew that at that time almost any one of those great minds would have been living in Europe if it had been possible for them. They didn't even want to live in New York – how was the Great American Thing going to happen? So as I painted along on my cow's skull on blue I thought to myself, 'I'll make it an American painting. They will not think it great with the red stripes down the side – Red, White and Blue – but they will notice it.'"  Scholars have suggested that in the artist had found her true "America" in New Mexico – an America of vast, rural open spaces - a place where she could be completely free.

Shortly after her return to New York, O'Keeffe presented an exhibition of her new work at Stieglitz's American Place. The exhibition included 50 new works, featuring After a Walk Back of Mabel's which hung prominently between Black Cross (1929, Art Institute of Chicago) and New York, Night (1929, Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Nebraska).  O'Keeffe posed in front of this particular painting for two portrait photographs to commemorate this exhibition; one by photographer Peter Juley and another by Stieglitz. O'Keeffe as subject for Stieglitz was nothing new; Stieglitz had shot O'Keeffe hundreds of times, both clothed and in the nude in the early 1920s. In this portrait, however, a new formality exists, suggesting a pride in and connection to her art that was previously lacking. Even Stieglitz seemed to recognize O'Keeffe's new spirit of independence after she returned from New Mexico. Susan Danly notes "The photograph ... differs significantly from [Stieglitz's] earlier images of O'Keeffe posed with her work. Gone are the allusions to sensuality, either personal or aesthetic, and instead we see the artist as a saintly desert ascetic" (Georgia O'Keeffe and the Camera: The Art of Identity, 2008, p. 12).

O'Keeffe returned to New Mexico nearly every year for the rest of her life, taking up permanent residence in Abiquiu in 1949, a few years after Stieglitz's death. O'Keeffe has become inextricably linked with New Mexico, and her powerful interpretations of the Southwestern landscape are among the most notable contributions to American modern art.

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