Unvarnished photos by Georgia O’Keeffe show the elusive painter in her element | Smart News

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Georgia O’Keeffe poses at her home, Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. The artist has often drawn on imagery of the American Southwest in his work.
Malcolm Varon

Who was Georgia O’Keeffe? It’s a question that permeates much of the scholarship and writing around the legendary painter, who was both one of the most photographed – and the most mysterious, the artists of the 20th century.

Was she reclusive and reserved, constantly controlling her image? (Rumor has it that she once turned down a solo exhibition at the Louvre.) Did she paint female genitalia or just flowers? Was she disconcerted by the attention surrounding her work?

Even her personal life raises fascinating questions: Was she romantically involved with a man 58 years her junior? And if it was, should it be celebrated or reviled?

“Georgia O’Keeffe, A Life Well Lived: Photographs by Malcolm Varon,” on view at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, through October 31, attempts to answer that question by never-before-seen photographs of the artist as she approached the end of her life.

Even the genesis of these representations testifies to his reclusive and elusive nature. In 1977, says the museum, a writer from Artistic news was about to write a retrospective on the life of the 90-year-old artist. But when he arrived at the Ghost Ranch complex in Abiquiú, New Mexico, the artist told him she had no current photographs he could use.

Fortunately, photographer Malcolm Varon lived nearby and got to work. The result was over 70 color images of O’Keeffe and his landscape of life in New Mexico. They are among the only images of the painter, who died in 1986 at the age of 98, in her last days.

Varon was not there as a friend but on a mission, reports Hyperallergicthis is Jasmine Liu, bringing together O’Keeffe’s works for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. As their relationship developed, this dynamic carried over into the photographs. The artist is portrayed there with a welcoming demeanor, a seriousness of posture and composure that immediately give way to joviality beneath the surface.

Georgia O'Keeffe in a tree and laughing

The entertainer, pictured here in her Ghost Ranch compound, would live to be 98.

Malcolm Varon

“It was an intimate situation,” says Varon Hyperallergic. “…His iconic character disappeared, for me at least, during this association.”

The photographs are also significant because they were taken in color, Ariel Plotek, curator at the Santa Fe O’Keeffe Museum, recount Hyperallergic. The vast majority of O’Keeffe’s portraits are in black and white, according to Plotek.

This aesthetic even carried over to the way O’Keeffe dressed. “During her life, she was rarely seen wearing anything other than her nun-like black and white robes, which she made or modified mostly herself,” Liu notes.. “She reportedly once explained that if she started wearing color, she wouldn’t have time to paint.”

These stories contribute to the portrayal of O’Keeffe as a sensible and reserved person, but Varon’s photographs offer a different narrative. Part of this can be attributed to his distinct photographic process, which began before he took a single photo. Rather than creating an entirely candid photo, Varon attempted to craft an organic emotional response by giving the person a direction, whether it’s looking at the camera, listening to music, or contemplating a memory. .. Once they were sufficiently immersed in what he asked them to do, he could then capture a photograph that showed the real person and not the public mask.

O’Keeffe herself was no stranger to the lens. In another fact seemingly at odds with his public persona, the artist was in fact the subject of a variety of photographic portraits during his lifetime. Her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, captured her in more than 300 photos over 20 years, according to the Alfred Stieglitz Collection, including a series of striking and controversial nudes. O’Keeffe later said how struck she was by the response from viewers.

“Several men – after looking around for a while – asked Stieglitz if he would photograph their wives or girlfriends like he photographed me.” she said, according to Barbara Buhler Lynes O’Keefe, Stieglitz and the critics, 1916-1929“…If they had known what a close relationship he would have needed to photograph their wives or their girlfriends the way he photographed me, I don’t think they would have been interested.”

The obsession with showing the real Georgia O’Keeffe continued after Stieglitz. LIFE The magazine ran a cover story about the artist in 1968, produced in his New Mexico home. And in 1979, Andy Warhol portrayed her in a series of Diamond Dust prints.

Photography could both elevate O’Keeffe and harm his own artistic endeavors. Varon suspects that his shy public stance later in life was a long-term reaction to Stieglitz’s nude photographs and their reception.

“She did a lot to negate this idea of ​​herself as a sexualized person, and her paintings as sexualized paintings,” Varon says. Hyperallergic. “So this idea of ​​her as reclusive, as iconic, just comes from celebrity status.”

“Georgia O’Keeffe, A Life Well Lived: Photographs by Malcolm Varon” is on view at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, through October 31.

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