Alfred Stieglitz Photographs in Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction @Whitney

JTF (just the facts): The main Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit contains over 125 paintings, drawings, and watercolors, spread across several large adjoining rooms and galleries. In a small side room, a total of 13 black and white photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, taken of O’Keeffe, are variously framed and matted and hung against medium brown walls. 9 of the images are gelatin silver prints; the other 4 are platinum prints. All of the works are from the period 1918 to 1922. A single glass case includes issues of Camera Work, 291, other books and related ephemera.

The Whitney does not allow photography in the galleries, so unfortunately, there are no installation shots of this show. The image at right, of O’Keeffe’s hands from 1918, is via the George Eastman House website, although a print from this same negative is on view in this show.

Comments/Context: The scandalous relationship between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz is a minor back story to the expansive abstraction show of O’Keeffe’s work now on view at the Whitney. While famously flaunting convention and living as lovers (out of wedlock) after WWI, the two passionate artists collaborated on a series of iconic photographic portraits and nudes of O’Keeffe that have been included in the show in a side gallery. The images have nothing to do with abstraction or O’Keeffe’s place in the pantheon of painters; they do however have something to say about O’Keeffe’s powerful and confident personality and about Stieglitz’ talents as a photographer.

All of the photographs in this small adjunct show come from the early part of their audacious relationship. Many of the images are close-up fragments of O’Keeffe’s strong body: her hands/fingers, breasts, and torso are willingly posed in a variety of artful compositions – arms swoop above her head, hands grip her own breasts, expressive bent fingers clutch and turn, the curve of her wiry torso stands silhouetted against a window. The other images are portraits in a more traditional sense – head and upper body shots of O’Keeffe, nearly always with a serious and penetrating glare on her face, directly confronting and overtly rejecting the implied criticisms of the surrounding world. For their times, these were pretty startling pictures, both radical in their content and lyrical in their execution; here was a woman laid bare to the camera, and yet defiantly beautiful in her own powerful sexuality.

It is a testament to both photographer and sitter that these images remain so potent after almost a century. Few nudes (particularly of hands) have reached this pinnacle of success in all of the intervening years. So while the main focus of this major exhibit is O’Keeffe’s abstract paintings, don’t fail to miss the side gallery of Stieglitz’ photographs of O’Keeffe, as they rightfully belong among the great works in the history of the medium.

Collector’s POV: Alfred Stieglitz’ portraits and nudes of Georgia O’Keeffe are among the most rare/valuable photographs ever made. Most of these works are safely housed in museum collections. From time to time, these images do however come into the secondary markets. In the past five years or so, a handful of these vintage works have come free, finding willing buyers between $250000 and $1500000.

Of course, many of these spectacular images would fit perfectly into our own collection of female nudes. The unfortunate reality is that they are far out of reach for us; we’ll just have to wistfully covet and enjoy them from afar.

Rating: ** (two stars) VERY GOOD (rating system described here)

A few words on this particular rating: in general, the quality of the photography in this exhibit easily deserves three stars, hands down. But since this exhibit is primarily about O’Keeffe and her abstract paintings (with the photographs as a tangential afterthought), I can’t in good faith give the show a three star rating and recommend going out of your way to see it just for the photography. If the show was a separate entity, with more prominent credit to Stieglitz for the photographs, and some scholarly discussion of their history and importance in the context of both photography and their personal relationship, it would easily merit three stars. As it is, I can reluctantly only give it two.

Transit Hub:

Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction
Through January 17th

Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10021

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JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 large scale black-and white photographs, framed in thick black wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a single room gallery ... Read on.

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