Tag Archives: New York City

Georgia O’Keeffe – Love, Flowers and Solitude: Part II

24 Jan

In the first part of my little series, I wrote about Georgia’s early charcoal drawings, her correspondence and blooming romance with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. In this part, I will continue where I left off and focus on her fascinations with flowers.

“If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment.”

Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus, 1939

According to Georgia, they would make love, and Stieglitz would take pictures of her afterwards. She found it difficult and tiresome to stand still for so long. Sometimes he would focus on a specific body parts such as her bosom or her pretty delicate hands. In a similar manner Georgia would later focus on the detail of something that she was painting and cropped it, particularly flowers. When I think of Georgia’s dazzling portraits of flowers, I see her as a little girl out in the meadow, running freely and led by childlike curiosity, observing them through her magnifying glass and discovering an entire new world. Georgia was just as inquisitive as Alice in Wonderland, but also a very patient person with an acute observation. She gazes at flowers, she starts understanding their language and gesture, the petals hold no more secrets to her wise eyes. Enraptured with what she had seen and discovered, Georgia takes the paint – all sorts of colours fitting for a flower – yellow, pink, red, white, blue, orange – and paints for us all that the flowers try to hide from us. Georgia applies almost Zen-like principles in her art, and life too, her focus was always on patience and observation. She says herself: “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small it takes time – we haven’t time – and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.” Georgia’s paintings of overwhelmingly large flowers confront us with something we take so little to notice or appreciate. Just think about it, how little we spend just gazing at something; meditatively gazing without anything to gain from it, without a final destination.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Hibiscus with Plumeria, 1939

Georgia’s paintings of flowers are something most exquisite, no one before her painted flowers that way; huge flowers in vibrant tropical colours dominating the canvas, stretching their large petals and drawing you into their world. Fluid forms and lyrical softness are reminiscent of her early watercolours and charcoals, but the way of painting was something quite new. Inspired by Stieglitz and the photography that he introduced her to, she began painting in a very fine, precise way so that no brushstrokes are seen and the overall effect of paint on canvas is smooth. Personally, I would love to see the brushstrokes because it is like the artist is speaking to you, but perhaps without that technical segment we are able to focus on the thing Georgia is painting and not her as the creator behind it; by eliminating the heavy visible brushstrokes, she is revealing to us the flower itself, its petals, and allows it to be a world of if its own. She tricks us, feeds us illusions. Gazing at Georgia’s paintings of flowers makes me think that this is how a butterfly must feel when it lands on a flower, this is how a bumblebee must feel when he pays the beloved flower a visit and becomes one with its lush fragrant petals. We too don’t just observe Georgia’s flowers from afar, as we would a standard still life with flowers or a painting of a flowery meadow, we are engaged – we too become a part of the flower, at least for the moment. I think in some way, her paintings of flowers are really psychedelic.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Petunia and White Morning Glory, 1926

Georgia O’Keeffe, Sunflower, 1935

Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Iris, 1926

Georgia O’Keeffe, Oriental Poppies, 1927

At first, I didn’t think of Georgia’s flowers as ‘romantic’ in a way Claude Monet’s flowers are, scattered in the meadow or surrounding a lady sitting in the grass, but now I am thinking: what would be more romantic than painting a flower in such an intimate way – from the point of its most ardent lover and admirer. And did the flower petals blush from too much attention when Georgia painted them?

Georgia O’Keeffe – Love, Flowers and Solitude: Part I

13 Jan

Georgia O’Keeffe is a woman I deeply admire these days. She decided she wanted to become a painter at the age of twelve, and she not only became an accomplished painter but spent nearly her entire life developing her art, constantly learning, experimenting and changing, striving to paint in a way that was completely her own, and not mimic the art that others were making around her. Hardworking and dedicated when it came to her art, O’Keeffe worked continuously every day, never waited for the perfect moment of inspiration, and rarely allowed her negative moods or emotions to rule her day or her life. She was very patient and able to gaze at something in nature, be it a flower, a cloud, a brook, then meditate over it, soak in its every last detail and then distill the essence of her experience into her artwork. This way she created abstract paintings and drawings that were inspired by what she had seen in the natural world around her, and her own visions at the same time. This is the first part of a little series I will be making about Georgia O’Keeffe, and I will focus on things which fascinated me the most about her life; her love for Stieglitz, her love of flowers and her love of solitude.

Georgia O’Keeffe photographed by Alfred Stieglitz, 1918

Paintings which we today connect with Georgia O’Keeffe’s are full of colour but her early work was very different. At the academy, she painted in the realist manner which was expected of her, but privately she painted minimalist watercolours and abstract charcoal drawings which were unlike everything she had seen other artists around her painting. She was determined not to use colour until she discovers the true potential of a simple and unassuming medium such as drawing, in her own words: “I wasn’t going to use any colour until I couldn’t do what I wanted to do with charcoal or black paint.” Georgia thought that art, like music, should be inspired by nature and the real world, but separate from it and abstract in its core. She opposed copying directly what was in front of her, and her charcoals are really interesting, with repetitive shapes that seem to have been made spontaneously, without much thinking or planning before hand. Satisfied with what she has created, early in 1916, Georgia O’Keeffe sent a letter accompanied with ten of her charcoal drawings to her friend and former classmate Anita Pollitzer who then, without Georgia’s permission, proceeded to share these with the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz, at the time also known for being the promoter of modern art.

Georgia O’Keeffe, No. 7 Special 1915

Georgia O’Keeffe, No. 20-From Music-Special, 1915

Georgia O’Keeffe, Drawing XIII, 1915

It’s little to say that Stieglitz was captivated with what he saw; unable to utter a single word as he gazed at the drawings which seemed so fresh, exciting and new, so unlike all that he had seen before. Pollitzer wrote to Georgia about Stieglitz’s reaction: “it was a long while until his lips opened: finally a woman on paper.” Stieglitz almost instantly showed her drawing at his Midtown Manhattan art studio called “291”; the place for the scandalous and avant-garde art decades before Andy Warhol and his avant-garde at his Manhattan studio called “The Factory”. It wasn’t until May 1916 that Georgia found out that Stieglitz was showing her works at his gallery; at first she was angry about it, although she allowed the exhibition to continue, but then curiosity prevailed and she was eager to hear what it was that he loved about her drawings. From a simple letter which read: “Mr. Stieglitz, if you remember why you liked the charcoals Anita Pollitzer showed you and what they said to you, I would like to know, if you want to tell me“, they started a correspondence that lasted throughout their lives and little they knew that a seed of love was planted in those few words; love that would blossom in the years to come.

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918

In autumn of 1916, Georgia was teaching art at the West Texas State Normal College and living in a small town called Canyon. She wrote Stieglitz of her long walks in nature and the beauty of the night sky and stars, and she also mentioned some tall, strong and handsome young Texans. Stieglitz was more than twenty years her senior, married, although not very happily, but enjoying his life in New York City, in the bustling streets and tall skyscrapers, in the middle of a busy art community. By the end of 1916 and in the beginning of 1917, their letters were longer and of more intimate nature, they started opening up about their fears, struggles and secrets. Each letter was a little book; Stieglitz sometimes wrote to her up to three or four times a day, and Georgia said his letters would “sometimes burst open in the mail”.

Alfred Stieglitz; Georgia O’Keeffe, Hands and Breasts, 1919

They fell in love through their correspondence, and in June 1918 Georgia moved to New York City where Stieglitz provided her with a place to stay and work. He promoted her work, and in return, found in her a muse that he never had before. He took many photographs of her during their relationship, mostly lyrical nudes. On one of such photo sessions, Stieglitz’s wife Emmy walked in. She wasn’t impressed with what she had seen and demanded that he stop seeing Georgia. Completely enamored with Georgia, Stieglitz instead left his wife and the pair moved in a new flat in New York City. Days were spent in art and love. They slept separately at first but by August the passion overtook them and “they were like two teenagers in love. Several times a day they would run up the stairs to their bedroom, so eager to make love that they would start taking their clothes off as they ran.” (Richard Whelan; Alfred Stieglitz: A Biography)

Alfred Stieglitz; Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918

The letters they exchanged also speak of great passion, tenderness and mutual interests that kept their relationship alive throughout the years, and they range from tender and romantic longings such as this one from Georgia’s letter to Stieglitz in May 1922: “I’ll not try to say things I can’t — you must just understand — I want to put my arms round you — kiss you — let you kiss me — it’s all very quiet — what I want is very quiet — it’s great to trust anyone enough to let them kiss you.” to those which were more passionate in nature such as this one, also written by Georgia: “Dearest — my body is simply crazy with wanting you — If you don’t come tomorrow — I don’t see how I can wait for you — I wonder if your body wants mine the way mine wants yours — the kisses — the hotness — the wetness — all melting together — the being held so tight that it hurts — the strangle and the struggle.” They married in 1924, but didn’t live together always and that’s the reason their correspondence continued even after they started living together. All together they exchanged over 5000 letters, and they never seemed to run out of things to say. Something that Stieglitz wrote to her in June 1929 struck me as very poignant and beautiful: “I’d like to die in your arms – perhaps that’s my great wish – it always was.” She indeed was with him when he died in 1946.

Mark Rothko and Langhston Hughes – Subway Face

28 Jan

Today we are going to take a look at one of Mark Rothko’s early works called “Entrance to Subway” which is part of his series about New York City’s subways.

Mark Rothko, Entrance to Subway, 1938

Paintings from Rothko’s subway series don’t really display an outstanding skilfulness, they are not breathtakingly beautiful either, but their mood is striking. Rothko used an everyday urban scene and transformed its simplicity and banality into a psychological portrait of society’s alienation and depersonalisation. The series, painted mainly in the 1930s when Rothko was in his thirties, is filled with thin elongated figures with mask-like faces, tired commuters detached from themselves, their environment and each other; there’s no communication between figures. They seem so mute, apathetic and defeated. One can almost feel the heaviness of silence between them. Instead, they pass the time reading the newspapers or immersed in their own thoughts as they wait for the train, or for Godot? In “Entrance to Subway”, the lost souls of New York City’s wasteland descend into Hades’s underground where tall brown column stretch in a repetitive never-ending row. The urban scenery and the energy of these paintings reminds me of Kirchner’s Berlin street scenes laden with anxiety and frenzy. Still, if Kirchner’s thin figures are about to burst from anxiety and frenzy, then Rothko’s figures are about to melt into a shapeless grey puddle.

Mark Rothko, Subway, 1937

A visual detail to notice here is the dominance of colour over the line. Rothko said that “colors are performers” and indeed, it seems that the figures or the tall columns were made out of single brushstrokes. There is little or no shading and brushstrokes are thick and visible, leaving the edges of colours visible, just as they would be in Rothko’s later works. Although in “Entrance to Subway” the colour palette is rather cheerful with those blues, purples and yellows, in other paintings of the series a murky palette of browns prevails. Rothko had some strong opinions about the importance of colour on a painting. In 1936 he started working on a never finished book which was suppose to explore the similarity between children’s paintings and the art of modern painters which was inspired by primitive art. His thesis was that “the fact that one usually begins with drawing is already academic. We start with color.”

It took a long time and a lot of experimenting and thinking for Rothko to find his own unique artistic path. These paintings are merely the seed of what was to become of his art. As we can see in these early examples of Rothko’s art, it is clear that he always wanted to portray a deeper truth, the tragedy of humanity with spiritual overtones, but he didn’t know quite how to achieve that until he found an artistic path that was entirely his own – colour block painting.

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Woman in Subway Station), 1936

Mark Rothko, untitled, (The Subway), 1937

I feel that there is something so romantic about these ephemeral city experiences. The pointless frenzy over a train that eventually arrives whether you spend time worrying about it or not, the tired faces, the fact that you will probably never see the person that sits opposite you ever again, for better or for worse. Langhston Hughes, a poet of the Harlem-Renaissance took a more cheerful approach to the subject than Rothko and here is his short and beautiful poem called “Subway Face”:

“That I have been looking

For you all my life

Does not matter to you.

You do not know.

 

You never knew.

Nor did I.

Now you take the Harlem train uptown;

I take a local down.”

George Bellows – The Lone Tenement

22 Jan

The first thing I love about this painting is the title: The Lone Tenement. Doesn’t it sound so evocative of someone lonely, solitary, sad and abandoned? I say “someone” because both the title and the painting awake strong feelings in my heart; I almost want to hug the lonesome tenement and make its loneliness go away. I like to imagine that this is exactly what George Bellows did in his own way; by painting the tenement he preserved a memory of it for all times.

George Bellows, The Lone Tenement, December 1909

George Bellows’s painting shows a lonely building which stands as a relic surviving from an old neighbourhood block. The sight of the tall isolated building reminds me of a misunderstood, melancholy human figure from one of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings. In a cold December twilight, the lonely building stands on the outskirts of New York City as the sad witness of the urban expansion and progress and the last relic of the old. Thickly, richly applied paint and those dazzling orange and lavender shades somewhat oppose the sombre subject. If there is an expression ‘Living in the moment’, than I’m calling this painting ‘Painting in the moment’ because this building stood there lonely and vulnerable in December 1909 when Bellows painted this, but perhaps if he’d waited a month longer it wouldn’t have been there at all. And a month earlier, two more buildings would have been there too. In this painting, Bellows turned an ugly sight that most people wouldn’t even notice into something beautiful, lyrical and able to awake strong emotions.

George Bellows (1882-1925) was an American painter connected with the group of painters called The Ashcan School who concentrated on portraying the everyday reality of the city that never sleeps: New York City. In his last years, Bellows focused on domestic scenes and portraits of his wife and two daughters, but early in his career he painted urban New York and some very well known boxing scenes. Bellows was the City’s greatest portraitist in the beginning of the twentieth century; he portrayed the disappearance of the old and intimate New York and scenes that interested him were the demolitions of old neighbourhoods, building of new bridges and train stations, construction sites, and places where the urban meets the wild nature surrounding the City. Each of his paintings has a distinct mood and if you concentrate you can almost hear the sounds in the distance and smell the air. Bellows observed and painted meticulously the City’s rapid change, its vivacious energy, its joys, sorrows and struggles for a sense of identity in a never ending flow of change. Here is a quote from the magazine Harper’s Weekly from 1869 in connection to Bellows’s portrayal of a culture that is always rushing and always changing: “In London or Paris you may see some relic of past centuries; these are reverenced and preserved as long as they endure, but New York is a series of experiments, and every thing which has lived its life and played its part is held to be dead, and is buried, and over it grows a new world.”

When I daydream of New York, my visions are pink and soft-edged like clouds and shaped by Lou Reed’s songs and the street-wise groovy rock ‘n’ roll of Velvet Underground, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe’s romance as artists working side by side, Edie Sedgwick on one of the legendary parties wearing huge earrings and talking to Andy Warhol, Sid Vicious and Nancy kissing in an alleyway in the film “Sid and Nancy” (1986), Johnny Depp as Ichabod Crane walking hand in hand with Katrina in the last scene of “The Sleepy Hollow” (1999) as snow starts falling gently… so being introduced to Bellows’s art and gazing through New York City through his eyes is just adding to the richness of my daydreams!

Rembrandt, The Mill, 1645-48

In connection to the sentiment of seeing the building in the full scale of emotions that you would see a human being with, I will mention Rembrandt’s darkly romantic and hauntingly beautiful “The Mill” which shows a scenery and a mill bursting with emotions. It’s more than a landscape and the Mill appears more like a melancholy loner than just a mill.