Georgia O’Keeffe’s East River with Sun is a hauntingly beautiful depiction of the artist’s personal observations of New York City. In a scene void of any figures, O’Keeffe transforms a bustling city into an uninhabited landscape, executed in her renowned style focused on space and form and imbued with her brilliant sense of abstraction. Whereas her prolific depictions of flowers focused on magnification, in the present work, O’Keeffe achieves a panoramic perspective, so as to accommodate the full splendor of the city skyline. East River with Sun embodies the sophisticated essence of O’Keeffe’s aesthetic and offers a glimpse into the artist’s world, capturing a scene she viewed daily from her New York home.
In the 1920s, New York was the epicenter for the development of American Modern art, and the uniqueness of the city’s atmosphere inspired some of the most significant artworks of the era. O’Keeffe’s husband, the preeminent photographer and dealer Alfred Stieglitz, was a key proponent of American Modernism and represented a renowned group of artists that became known as the ‘Stieglitz Circle.’ For at least ten years, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz followed an annual routine of spending the winter months in the heart of the energetic art world in New York and the summer months in a much quieter environment at Oak Lawn, the Stieglitz farmhouse in Lake George. In November of 1925, the couple moved into a 30th floor suite at the Shelton Hotel on Lexington Avenue at 48th Street, where they would live for ten years. The building itself towered over surrounding structures, and as O’Keeffe’s biographer Roxana Robinson noted, “Aesthetically the situation was ideal…offering expansive vistas in all directions…the site offered her the sense of boundless space and distance she needed.” (Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, New York, 1989, p. 289)
Through the eastern windows, O’Keeffe’s suite overlooked the East River, which runs along the eastern edge of Manhattan Island, separating the densely populated and urbanized boroughs of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens. Significant American artists and photographers, such as Edward Hopper, John Marin and Stieglitz, among others, each depicted the East River in the 1910s and 1920s, all captivated by the urban scene. In East River with Sun O'Keeffe simplifies the forms of the cloudy sky, the buildings and their reflections in the river, reducing the subjects to a rhythmic pattern of lines and softly modulated color. She uses the velvety medium of pastel to create a rich surface that conveys the depth of the landscape and movement of the smoke billowing from the factories. Art conservator and historian Judith C. Walsh wrote on the significance of the pastel medium to O’Keeffe’s oeuvre, “Pastel afforded O'Keeffe a medium for her most unabashedly beautiful works of art. Exploiting pastel's broad range in hue and value, she was able to combine the graceful tonal imagery she had developed in charcoal with the intense abstract color she had explored in watercolor. Unexpectedly, she also found that pastel could project a captivating surface and texture. In contrast to her brief campaigns of focused work in charcoal and watercolor, O'Keeffe, beginning in 1915, used pastel steadily throughout her career.” (“The Language of O’Keeffe’s Materials: Charcoal, Watercolor, Pastel” in O’Keeffe on Paper, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 68) In the present work, O'Keeffe adeptly manipulates the medium, varying the application and saturation of the pigments to create a visually captivating surface.
The palette of East River with Sun consists primarily of grey and white. However, with O’Keeffe’s striking addition of a sharp pink, this limited color scheme becomes far more sophisticated and a powerful tool of expression. Placed in concentrated areas in the water and sky, the pink adds intrigue and directs the viewer’s eye through the composition. The minimalism of the palette echoes the simplification of form. This technique is found throughout O’Keeffe’s series on the East River, which includes three pastels. Fellow artist Oscar Bluemner wrote of O'Keeffe's proclivity for subtly modulated colors and her tendency to produce work in a series, "Color, not of dramatic duachrome contrast, not triads demoting mysterious complex of musician or poet, but single color essentially felt, or at most, scales of related colors; one color to one line, one color and one line to one thought, one thought to one painting, a hundred paintings to a hundred different versions of one idea." (as quoted in J.R. Hayes, Oscar Bluemner, New York, 1991, p. 128)
O’Keeffe’s expert ability with nuanced shifts in color and her unique interpretation of perspective, as demonstrated in East River with Sun, can be found throughout her various media and subject matter. Walsh notes of the interconnectivity of her work in different materials, “All elements of her style were developed through a process of exploration and synthesis of media. Her tonal abstract images came from charcoal. Her clear brilliant color came from watercolor. These were fused, then refined, by the tonal and textural qualities she found in pastel. All was finally translated into oil, the medium by which she made her reputation and her fortune.” (“The Language of O’Keeffe’s Materials,” p. 76) Accordingly, many of the same hallmark elements that make the present work such a compelling image can also be seen in her oil paintings, such as The White Calico Flower (1931, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York). In both The White Calico Flower and East River with Sun, one sees the common elements of O'Keeffe's technique including: their essentially monochromatic palettes, softly blended gradations of the media, curved contour lines, and crisp edges. The White Calico Flower is executed in a palette of greys. The gradual shifts in value on the petals lend to a softly voluptuous feel, echoing the softness of the smoothly blended pastel sky and clouds in East River with Sun. Additionally, the contours in the ripples of the petals’ edges in The White Calico Flower echo the contours of the rippled clouds of the New York scene. In both works, crisp edges created between light forms set against darker forms also provide an element of sharp contrasts, as seen between the edges of the stems set against the black negative space in The White Calico Flower and where the deeply shadowed buildings are set against the bright water on the pastel.
As seen through this emphasis on contrast, East River with Sun also reflects O’Keeffe’s interactions with the medium of photography. Stieglitz took photographs of the East River through the window of their suite, such as From the 30th Story Shelton Hotel (Room 303, Intimate Gallery), Looking East (1927, National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.). It is possible that O’Keeffe found inspiration looking through Stieglitz’s camera. The dramatic horizontal format of the present work echoes that of a panoramic photograph. Bice Curgier wrote on this influence in O’Keeffe’s work, “Only certain specific characteristics of the medium of photography were admitted into her pictorial world. These were elements that would serve to increase the clarity and directness of her pictures to rid them of superfluous detail, like the stylization inherent in black and white photography by its very nature. In addition, the impression that the middle distance in O’Keeffe’s landscapes seems to be eliminated and the foreground and background compressed corresponds to the effect of a telescopic lens…[S]uch consistent principles in Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings as the reduction to essentials, compression of near and far, monumentality, and intimacy bear comparison with the fundamental facts of photography.” (“Holding up the Sky” in Georgia O’Keeffe, Ostfildern-Ruit, Germany, 2003, p. 20)
When referring to another work from this series (1927, East River, Private collection), Barbara Buhler Lynes commented on the place of the East River subject in O’Keeffe’s oeuvre, “By the second half of the 1920s, in East River O’Keeffe had turned even further away from her early impulse to abstraction and had begun to establish a relatively palpable space in which simplified, though instantly recognizable, forms exist in an atmosphere permeated with aerial perspective and controlled spatially by their relative sizes in receding planes.” (“Inventions of Different Orders” in O'Keeffe on Paper, exhibition catalogue, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 50) As is true of Georgia O’Keeffe’s finest works, the strength of East River with Sun lies in its careful balance of realism and abstraction, its intricate layering of objective and subjective meaning and its wonderful synthesis of form and color.