Georgia O’Keeffe, an independent woman of great strength, was one of the most significant artists of the 20th century.

Renowned for her paintings of large-scale flowers, New York cityscapes, animal bones and the New Mexico landscape, she explored abstraction and after the mid-1920s shifted toward representation and heightened realism.

But photography – specifically photos of her taken by such famous photographers as Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, Todd Webb, Irving Penn and Arnold Newman – also played a major role in her long career.

So it is appropriate that the focus of an O’Keeffe exhibit showing through Sept. 7 at the Portland Museum of Art is on the artist as the subject in photographs during different periods of her life.

“Georgia O’Keeffe and the Camera: The Art of Identity” includes 60 photographs of O’Keeffe and 18 paintings or sculptures created by her. It is, according to the museum, the first exhibition to pair paintings and photographs to establish two opposing public images of the artist.

Through those photos, we see O’Keeffe’s emotional growth from innocent youth to independent maturity to a sense of stoic wisdom.

Stieglitz first showed O’Keeffe’s work in his avante-garde art gallery called 291 in New York City in 1916. At that time, O’Keeffe, a leading member of one of the avante-garde art movements, was painting abstract works.

Stieglitz became her art dealer, mentor and lover. They married in 1924. Between 1917 and 1934, Stieglitz took 340 portraits of O’Keeffe, including some of her standing in front of her work, some of her elegant hands and some of her in the nude.

Beyond her own art, O’Keeffe was one of the first modernists to understand the power of photography to shape perceptions. She and Stieglitz both viewed photography as a serious art form. Photos of O’Keeffe taken by her peers identified her as a woman of strength, independence and strong will. Photos taken by Stieglitz also established her first public image as a sexually liberated woman.

“It takes courage to be a painter. I walked on the edge of a knife,” O’Keeffe affirms in a continuing video titled “A Life in Art” narrated by Gene Hackman and shown in one of the small galleries of this huge exhibit.

Critics of O’Keeffe’s work maintain that the flowers in her artwork are symbols of sexuality. O’Keeffe, who was offended by the critics’ interpretation, states succinctly in the video: “My flowers are flowers.”

After Stieglitz died in 1946, O’Keeffe searched for a spiritual place and moved to New Mexico in 1949. She had rented a place in the summers there from 1936 to 1940 and came to love the sparse natural environment. Her life and her paintings were actually quite similar – stark simplicity in form and color, no frills.

O’Keeffe loved Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, where she lived with a deep appreciation of nature. While capturing nature in her artwork, she never abandoned abstraction. In many of her works, her flowers are so magnified they could be considered abstract paintings.

Some of her paintings hanging in the show include “Corn,” “Horse’s Skull with White Rose,” “The Patio – No. 1” and “Above the Clouds I.”

One of the most beautiful early photographs of O’Keeffe was taken by Stieglitz in 1918. Simply titled “Georgia O’Keeffe,” it is black and white and depicts her in her youth, wearing a black hat and looking up, with her hands at her neck beginning to unbutton a jacket.

Adams’ photograph, “Georgia O’Keeffe and Orville Cox, Canyon de Chelly National Park,” taken in 1937, is a masterpiece. It captures her sense of humor and playful, rebellious spirit.

The most powerful photograph in the exhibit, in my opinion, is a silhouette of O’Keeffe’s face taken by Philippe Halsman in 1958. She is wearing a white bandanna. Halsman captures a woman of stoic wisdom. The photo is featured on the exhibit’s impressive catalog.

All the photos in this exhibit are magnificent, but a few more warrant mention. Newman’s black-and-white photograph titled “Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, An American Place,” taken in 1944, is a classic example of beauty and simplicity – depicting a moment in the modern art movement.

Webb’s photograph of O’Keeffe titled “Georgia O’Keeffe at Ghost Ranch,” taken in 1967, shows a mature and reflective side of the artist. Newman’s photograph “Georgia O’Keeffe Ghost Ranch, New Mexico,” taken in 1968, shows her with white hair pulled into a bun with her head silhouetted against an empty white easel – and the New Mexico environment in the background, stark, poignant and powerful.

The photos in the exhibit capture O’Keeffe as a role model of feminine strength and independence and an artist of talent and courage renowned for her remarkable life as well as her work.

The PMA at Seven Congress Square is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; and 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and students with ID, $4 for youths ages 6-17 and free for children under 6. Admission is free from 5 to 9 p.m. Friday.

Pat Davidson Reef has a master’s degree in education and has taught art history at Catherine McAuley High School in Portland. She has written two children’s books, “Dahlov Ipcar, Artist,” and “Bernard Langlais, Sculptor.”


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