Georgia O’Keeffe’s City Scapes

Most people know her as the flower lady. And some people know about her bones and Southwest themes. I knew not many people know about her city scapes or her crosses. Today I learned that a friend of mine who is a native New Yorker had never met any of Georgia O’Keeffe’s skyscraper paintings. So I had to share a bunch with her. And then, well, the writing bug hit.

Georgia O’Keeffe has been one of my favorite painters since I was in college. Like most of her fans, I fell in love with her giant, lush flowers. When I went to see a show of her work– it was maybe twenty years ago, in Dallas– I fell in love with her deep red poppies. I wanted to crawl into the painting and live inside those flowers.

I don’t remember any longer whether it was at that show or elsewhere that I first encountered her cityscapes, paintings of New York skyscrapers. At first glance they are about as different from her flowers as can be. And yet… both her vision of New York and her vision of flowers have this in common: they radically reimagine her subject, making me see them from a different perspective.

Here are a trio of my favorites:

1. In City Night, 1926 O’ Keeffe simplifies the buildings into stark geometric shapes, black, white and grey. The black buildings dominate the picture, stark black fields reaching in diagonal blocks, from the bottom of the canvas to the top, each bisected by a grey field. The deep blue sky zig zags between their looming presence. And the stair-stepped white building shines in the background, peeking shyly out from behind the building on the right.

The simple palette is soothing, calming. Somehow, although the buildings are black and big, they feel to me more like they are sheltering rather than threatening. And I love the way the one small white speck of a star is visible just above the building on the left, almost at the center of the canvas, but not quite. The star is balanced by the white circle of the moon at the center bottom. The white building and the two grey fields draw the eye upward from the glowing, haloed moon to the small star. The play of light and dark, the deceptively simple shapes, are masterful.

This is the city of the solitary wanderer, not a reveler caught up in the hustle and bustle of the city, but a dreamer, daring to look up towards heaven, ignoring all the noise and light to see natural beauty in harmony with man-made beauty.

One of my favorite details might be that little black arm that reaches out from the black building on the left, just below the moon, as if it were a hand trying to cradle the glowing globe. And then how that’s balanced by a single white light spot higher up, a reflection from the moon? A light in or on the building? Who can tell? It’s mysterious and that feels right somehow. O’Keeffe made it white, not yellow or amber, so that it does become part of a trio of lights: the star, the moon, the small white circle, a little dance of light to keep the eye moving. And to me the threeness seems so very fitting: a trinity of light…

2. The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y., 1926

“I went out one morning to look at [the Shelton Hotel] and there was the optical illusion of a bite out of one side of the tower made by the sun, with sunspots against the building and against the sky.”

The Shelton with Sunspots is magical. I love how it begins with an optical illusion that is also a metaphor: the sun taking a bite out of a tower. The sun like a lion, the tower like its prey. The sunspot bite on the face of the tower makes an oval like a face, like an angel, like the the face of God which Moses could not look upon.

The smaller sunspots dance– golden, yellow, red, orange, white– like a throng of attendant spirits, like confetti, like coins. They add a cheerful, festive atmosphere.

The clouds like fleecy waves– like hair, like garments, like rays of glory– are behind the Shelton building, but also reach down in front of the buildings in the background, obscuring them with fog. The buildings are mostly geometric blocks, grey and brown. The Shetland itself has three columns of neat grey windows, floating in the air, looking almost like stitches in a seam, neat little row of dashes, in monotonous Morse code that spells out nothing.

Although there are a lot of blue and grey shades, the bright sunspots and the pale gleam of the clouds make this picture feel warm and bright.

I also love how at the top of the brown building that angles in from the left there’s a little dark wave– an abstraction of an architectural detail?– whose shape mirrors the waves of the clouds.

Like in City Night, this painting shows a harmony of nature and man made shapes– buildings, clouds, sun, and atmosphere–dancing together, blending at times so it’s hard to tell where the work of man ends and that of nature begins. Far from being at odds with each other, O’Keeffe seems to say, the works of man and the works of God are all a part of the great song.

Sadly, there aren’t any images of these paintings in the public domain, so I can’t illustrate this blog post. But do click through and enjoy.

3. New York Street with Moon, 1925 is the first of her city paintings. It’s lyrical, almost singing. I love the shape the sky makes, in between the buildings. And here you have another trio of lights, the moon peeking through the layers of fluffy clouds, the haloed street lamp, and the red glowing circle of the stoplight. O’Keefe’s use of negative space is breathtaking, the way the sky seems almost like a being, a presence, reaching down around the buildings.

I love the sunset glow with the steeple framed in it. Even though the subject matter is secular, there is, for me, almost a devotional quality to this painting. The moon peering over the cloud, the streetlight bending a graceful neck, the stoplight’s red face: they all seem almost to be presences, beings, straining toward that other presence, indicated by the steeple. I can almost fancy them the three magi come to pay court to the king of kings. Even though I strongly doubt that’s what O’Keeffe had in mind, her composition invites the viewer into contemplation which allows the fancy to flow freely.

Check out more of O’Keeffe’s city paintings here: Beyond Flowers And Desert, Georgia O’Keeffe’s New York

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