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The iconic painter Georgia O’Keeffe painted Pink Dish Green Leaves during a five-year period in New York City, a fruitful time in the artist’s career that is explored in a new exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Georgia O’Keeffe. Pink Dish and Green Leaves, 1928–29. Private collection. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Photograph by Bruce M. White.

Think you know Georgia O’Keeffe? A Chicago blockbuster reveals a different side

A summerlong exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago will display some 100 works from the iconic painter, focusing on her city years.

For most, the name Georgia O’Keeffe inspires images of blooming flowers bursting with color. In cultural lore, the icon of feminist painting is a celebrated pioneer of color, a griot of the Southwest desert sky and a recluse in a wide-brimmed hat.

An expansive new show at the Art Institute of Chicago, however, offers a different side of the Wisconsin-born O’Keeffe, one that captures the artist as someone still carving her place in the art world.

Georgia O'Keeffe diptych

The Wisconsin-born O’Keeffe lived in New York City early in her career, and that time shaped her as an artist.

Portrait (left) by Alfred Stieglitz. Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918. The Art Institute of Chicago, Alfred Stieglitz Collection. © The Art Institute of Chicago. (Right) Georgia O’Keeffe. The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y., 1926. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Leigh B. Block. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/ Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Opening on Sunday, “Georgia O’Keeffe: My New Yorks” features some 100 works by O’Keeffe, many of them from a short, but prolific time in the artist’s life in which she drew inspiration from cityscapes, not desertscapes. “From the retrospective of history, O’Keeffe always seemed famous,” says Sarah Kelly Oehler, one of the two Art Institute curators of “My New Yorks.” “But this is a moment where she’s very experimental.”

That moment spans the years 1925 to 1930, when O’Keeffe made New York City the subject of a series of paintings, charcoals, pastels, and drawings. Living with her husband, photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe bounced between seasonal apartments on the top floors of the newly built Shelton Hotel, then one of the city’s tallest buildings. The view astounded O’Keeffe. “Living in the Shelton Hotel gave her this critical distance from the city,” says Oehler. “The Shelton was almost a refuge way up high that gave her a chance to step back and really take in the city.”

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Georgia O’Keeffe. New York Street with Moon, 1925. Colección Carmen Thyssen on loan at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, CTB.1981.76. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

When recalling her life at the Midtown hotel, O’Keeffe wrote: I had never lived up so high before and was so excited that 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.

One particular scene, the view of the east river from O’Keeffe’s apartment window, seemed to especially excite the painter. So much so that Oehler and her co-curator, Annelise K. Madsen, dedicated an entire section of the exhibit to it. “It’s her daily view,” says Madsen. “She’s seeing it through various seasons and temperaments and approaching the material differently over time.”

Among O’Keeffe’s river explorations is a remarkable pastel titled Pink Dish and Green Leaves. In it, O’Keeffe creates a delicate interplay between a glass compote and the hazy, smoke-filled sky. The subtle curves of the glass, and the dark green leaves that sit inside it, offer a sense of soft domesticity, a contrast to the stark edges of the gray city. The piece not only plays with scale and color, but also stands among the only works that offer a glimpse of O’Keeffe’s life beyond the canvas.

“The pastel is the only of the East River images that also includes any suggestion of the Shelton,” says Oehler, “and her daily life with the inclusion of the windowsill and the compote.” It also shows O’Keeffe’s deliberate decision to avoid capturing the city in a uniformly masculine way. “She’s bringing in touches that are organic and curvilinear in the face of the hard-edged city.”

O'Keeffe, Georgia_East River from the 30th Story of Shelton Hotel-Press (300ppi, 3000px, sRGB, JPEG).jpg

A view of the East River from her New York hotel appeared particularly inspirational to O’Keeffe.

Georgia O’Keeffe. East River from the 30th Story of the Shelton Hotel, 1928. New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Connecticut, Stephen B. Lawrence Fund. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

O’Keeffe was one of few people — and even fewer women — to see New York from this particular vantage point. The privileged perspective sparked a burst of creativity for an artist who’d been raised on a Wisconsin farm and packed her belongings right after high school to attend the Art Institute of Chicago before heading off to New York.

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“I had never lived up so high before,” wrote the Wisconsin-born O’Keeffe of her urban life in the 1920s, “and was so excited that I began talking about trying to paint New York.”

Georgia O’Keeffe. East River from the Shelton (East River No. 1), 1927–28. New Jersey State Museum Collection. Purchased by the Association for the Arts of the New Jersey State Museum with a gift from Mary Lea Johnson. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Photo by Peter S. Jacobs.

She created 25 paintings, charcoals and pastels plus numerous drawings of the city in her five years at the hotel. O’Keeffe’s goal was never to capture an exact rendering of changing industrial landscape, but rather something more ephemeral and personal. Or, as O’Keeffe put it in a letter in 1926: “One cannot capture New York as it is, but rather as it is felt.”

And though it’s taken nearly 100 years for O’Keeffe’s early New York pieces to anchor a blockbuster exhibit, the artist never doubted that she had captured something special. “She said, ‘My New Yorks would turn the world over,’ ” reflects Madsen. “She had confidence in what she was bringing to the art world. They just had yet to see it.”

If you go: Georgia O’Keeffe: My New Yorks opens Sunday to the public and runs through Sept. 22 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave. Exhibition tickets are $10 in addition to general admission or free for members.

Elly Fishman is a freelance writer and the author of Refugee High: Coming of Age in America.

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