Review: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Photography at MFAH

ByDavid M. Conte

Nov 30, 2021

Visual art is back in force at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and Georgia O’Keeffe’s work as a photographer is one of their current special exhibitions. Surprising and enlightening, this collection of her work shows another dimension of O’Keeffe’s artistic vision, distinct from her famous photographer husband, Alfred Stieglitz.

O’Keeffe was one of the first women to be critically acclaimed from the art world in New York City, and her simple yet profound images of the natural world allowed viewers to see the abstract in what was traditionally concrete. Famous for his paintings, this is the first exhibition to focus primarily on his photography.

The layout of the exhibition is an interesting juxtaposition of her photographs, a few selected paintings, and images taken of her by her friend and fellow photographer Todd Webb (1905-2000). It’s almost a collage of her — both behind and in front of a camera — with her paintings reminiscent of how she used photos both as a source of inspiration, as well as a way to capture natural images of what she had already painted. Her photography was woven into her other artistic endeavors, and the exhibition reflects how photography complemented her paintings.

O’Keeffe’s photographs were sometimes studies made long after a painting was made. Most of the time, the images are just works in themselves: Polaroid snapshots of friends, a photo of a door, a ladder or a road, a glimpse of the nature that captured its beloved southwest, or even his New York home, adorned with iconic totem poles of the Western landscape.

Works like Antelope, (1943-46) illustrate O’Keeffe’s affinity for nature. Most of the images featured in the exhibit were of views near her home in New Mexico, from snow to sun and shrubs. The images are time capsules not only of the landscape she inhabited, but of her adventures: Glen Canyon in Utah and Arizona (sacred land to the Zuni, who considered it to be the place where humans first emerged) , the Maui Black Sands and the White House. Overlook and Spider Rock in the 1950s.

It has a series similar to Claude Monet’s water lilies and haystacks, but with photos: Great Sage, (1957) has its different versions, just like its Chow Chow dogs. And of course, flowers, as in the photographs of the Jimsonweed series from 1964-68. It’s good, but it’s even better when there is a painting to remind us of how reality translated into art, as in White flower, (1929). Sometimes the photos come first, often they come later, even decades later.

Photographs of his (mostly) southwestern surroundings are both juxtaposed and contextualized by his paintings and drawings. The designs are minimalist, perhaps unfinished, but certainly not as powerful in experience as the other works. However, they do provide insight into its sensitivity in terms of form and function.

As the wall labels encourage him, O’Keeffe’s interest in “aesthetic order and emotional expression” is evident throughout his work. The most captivating part of the exhibition is seeing a painting such as Little purple hills, (1934) turned into photography almost 40 years later. It’s magical as if the same images are still dramatic enough to continue to be captured, even for decades to come.

From the 1950s to the 1970s, O’Keeffe took a variety of images, many of which experimented with the light, shadow, and geometric dimensions of the domestic and natural worlds. The exhibition design pays homage to O’Keeffe’s fascination with visual tropes such as window frames, ladders, long roads that lead your imagination to the horizon, and doors that can bring you in or out. go out. His photos, dominated by windows, doors and roads, always lead to reconsider what it means to look at the world around us.

Georgia O’Keeffe, photographer is on view at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston until January 17, 2022. For more information on museum tickets and hours, go here.