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Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
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Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
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Fields of Vision: The Private Collection of Artists Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)

Autumn Leaf with White Flower

Details
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
Autumn Leaf with White Flower
oil on canvas
20 x 9 in. (50.8 x 22.9 cm.)
Painted in 1926.
Provenance
Alfred Stieglitz, New York
Grace Koehler Liebman, New York, gift from the above, 1928
The Downtown Gallery, New York
The artist, acquired from the above, 1950
The Downtown Gallery, New York
Private collection, New York, acquired from the above, 1958
William Zierlier, Inc., New York, 1970
Andrew Crispo Gallery, Inc., New York
Private collection, Chattanooga, 1973
Andrew Crispo Gallery, Inc., New York, 1974
Joshua Strychalski, New York
Acquired from the above by the late owners, 1977
Literature
R. Doty, "The Articulation of American Abstraction," Arts Magazine, November 1973, p. 47 (illustrated as Nicotina).
N. Callaway, "Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers," ArtSpace, Winter 1987-88, p. 27 (illustrated as Nicotina (Nicotiana)).
N. Callaway, ed., Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers, New York, 1989, pl. 36 (illustrated as Nicotina (Nicotiana) (Autumn Leaf and White Flower)).
B.B. Lynes, Georgia O’Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. I, New Haven, 1999, p. 311, no. 548 (illustrated).
H. Drohojowska-Philp, Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 2005, p. 266.
P.C. Richter, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charlottesville, 2006, p. 100 (as Nicotina).
Exhibited
New York, Andrew Crispo Gallery, Inc., Pioneers of American Abstraction: Oscar Bluemner, Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Arthur Dove, John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe, Charles Sheeler, Joseph Stella, Max Weber, October 17-November 17, 1973, n.p., no. 101 (as Nicotena).

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Lot Essay

Autumn Leaf with White Flower likely retains the original frame applied at the direction of Georgia O’Keeffe following the artist’s reacquisition of the painting in 1950.

Wolf Kahn and Emily Mason acquired Autumn Leaf with White Flower in 1977, in celebration of a successful Wolf Kahn solo show at Grace Borgenicht Gallery in New York. Following its purchase, the work hung in the living room of Kahn and Mason’s East Village apartment at 240 East 15th Street for decades.

No other motif is better associated with the original modernism of Georgia O’Keeffe than her iconic flowers. Depicting a Nicotiana blossom in front of one slender, dark leaf, Autumn Leaf with White Flower is an exultant work embodying the modern exploration of form and abstraction for which O’Keeffe has become best known. Presented upright directly facing the viewer, O’Keeffe’s singular white flower miraculously hovers at the lower center of the picture plane, framed within a towering and stately autumn leaf that nearly engulfs the entire canvas. The soft-gray abstracted background at the top of the picture plane harmoniously contours the rich black hues of the leaf, as its center fold guides the viewer’s eye downward to the star-shaped flower and its iridescent green center. Eschewing any painterly bravura, O’Keeffe uses clean lines and edges to render a precise yet confident depiction of her signature imagery from this period. Painted in 1926, the work belongs to one of O’Keeffe’s most fervent and creative decades of artistic output. Likely influenced by her time spent at the Stieglitz family compound in Lake George, New York, where the local flora and leaves inspired her, Autumn Leaf with White Flower effortlessly blends two distinct and often separate recurring motifs in O’Keeffe’s work to create a uniquely melodious and triumphant image.

O’Keeffe’s innovative renderings of flowers evolved from a passion for sharing through her work the intimate details of the environment that she believed many overlooked. She began painting her flower pictures in 1918, and they were shown for the first time by her dealer and future husband Alfred Stieglitz in 1923. By 1924, her floral subjects exploded into a sensation in the art world, with her seminal exhibition at Anderson Galleries garnering both very positive and very negative reviews. Even when Stieglitz first saw Petunia No. 2 (1924, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico) in O’Keeffe’s studio, he questioned, "Well, Georgia, I don't know how you are going to get away with anything like that—you aren't planning to show it, are you?" (as quoted in M. Constantino, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1994, p. 87) Nicholas Callaway explains this reaction, writing, "Many found [the flower paintings] to be unabashedly sensual, in some cases overtly erotic. Others perceived them as spiritually chaste...Added to the shock of their...outrageous color and scandalous (or sacred) shapes was the fact that these paintings had been created by a woman at a time when the art world was almost exclusively male...[The flower paintings] were extraordinarily controversial and sought-after, and made their maker a celebrity. It was the flowers that begat the O'Keeffe legend..." (Georgia O'Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers, New York, 1989, n.p.)

In addition to painting flowers, O’Keeffe’s imagery of leaves proved to be one of her most fruitful during this period. The Stieglitz family compound at Lake George had an old maple tree on the grounds which often served as the backdrop for family photos. O’Keeffe’s fascination with this tree, and its subsequent falling leaves, proved a focal point of her time spent in the area. Erin B. Coe explains, “Given the variety of trees that grew on the Stieglitz estate—birch, chestnut, maple, hickory, and oak—the paths and trails were littered with an array of leaves. O’Keeffe gathered them during her many long walks along the paths on the property and trails in the woods. Leaves also exemplified her kinship with autumn and sensitivity to seasonal change; she once revealed, ‘as I walked far up into the hills—through the woods—one morning—it occurred to me that the thing I enjoy of the autumn is that no matter what is happening to me—no matter how gloomy I may be feeling—I come back with my hickory leaf and my daisy.’ O’Keeffe began to concentrate on this subject in 1922 and continued to explore it until 1931, resulting in some twenty-nine canvases.” (E.B. Coe, “’Something so perfect’: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George,” Modern Nature: Georgia OKeeffe and Lake George, London, 2013, p. 63)

1926 was a critical year in O’Keeffe’s career as she first began to consistently explore combining separate objects into one painting. For example, her 1926 Shell and Old Shingle series of seven paintings pairs a white clam shell against a weathered gray shingle in various compositions. Five examples from the series are in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, with the remaining two owned by the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain, and the Saint Louis Art Museum, St. Louis, Missouri. With each work of the series, O’Keeffe endeavors further and further into abstraction, blurring the lines of spatial representation.

Peter-Cornell Richter posits that Autumn Leaf with White Flower directly derives from the Shell and Old Shingle series, arguing it is a “remarkable variation on the theme…in which the shingle clearly becomes the leaf. Thus, one motif grows out of another and takes on a new existence.” (Georgia OKeeffe and Alfred Stieglitz, Charlottesville, Virginia, 2006, p. 266) Compositionally related to this series, Autumn Leaf with White Flower is also arguably the earliest instance when the artist combined her signature flower and leaf imagery into one composition. Despite her return to these motifs in separate works, O’Keeffe only rarely utilized a flower and leaf together in one painting. She would later bring the theme to a larger canvas in 1928 with Yellow Hickory Leaves with Daisy (1928, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois).

Following her trips to New Mexico in 1929, O’Keeffe began to combine images and objects more consistently and liberally—rendering surrealistic compositions situating shells, flowers or a cow’s skull against Southwestern backdrops, as seen in the iconic Ram's Head, White Hollyhock-Hills (1935, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York). Works such as Autumn Leaf with White Flower are undeniably anticipatory of these forceful later canvases, emanating an element of the surreal and fantastical rarely evident in her output.

In Autumn Leaf with White Flower, O’Keeffe lavishes her leaf with a subtle mauve hue emerging organically from the black background, leading into a moss green center. Always known for her innovative use of color, O’Keeffe limits her bright pigments to the Nicotiana’s very center with effervescent green and cerulean blue paints that starkly contrast the rich black, white and gray hues that dominate most of the canvas. This primarily monochromatic palette, playing with a white focal point amidst a dark field, recalls Stieglitz’s photography, for which O’Keeffe was frequently his subject and muse. Indeed, a portrait from 1922, where O’Keeffe’s white shirt starkly contrasts her black outfit and surroundings, mirrors the Nicotiana brought to life against the black leaf in the present work.

In addition to the contrast of the white flower against the dark leaf, O'Keeffe also employs the photographic techniques of the detailed close-up and magnified image, as well as of the cropped edges of the picture plane. For example, Edward Weston, in parallel to O’Keeffe’s work, used the camera's capacity to turn still-life compositions into abstract images. Weston's still lifes also similarly elicited varied interpretations; seen as both sensual and spiritual, his photographs and O'Keeffe's paintings manifest the same duality.

Not only does Autumn Leaf with White Flower evoke the photography of O’Keeffe’s contemporaries, the painting’s dramatically vertical orientation and intensely contrasting tonality parallels her famous New York City imagery from this period. O’Keeffe painted Autumn Leaf with White Flower the same year she began to seriously explore the New York skyline as her subject. Already immortalized in the work of Stieglitz, Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler, New York was considered an overtly masculine subject. O’Keeffe later recalled, “When I wanted to paint New York, the men thought I’d lost my mind. But I did it anyway.” (as quoted in Carolyn Burke, Foursome, New York, 2019, p. 165) In an effort to further reject gender stereotypes, in March 1926 O’Keeffe gave an interview to The Chicago Evening Point asserting her independence as an artist, commenting, “Many men here in New York think women can’t be artists, but we see and feel and work as they can.” (as quoted in Burke, Foursome, p. 166) Painted during this year of self-proclaimed confidence and independence, Autumn Leaf with White Flower mimics the slender, sleek outline of O’Keeffe’s depictions of New York in this moment.

In Autumn Leaf with White Flower, Georgia O’Keeffe applies her modernist aesthetics to natural objects, drawing the viewer’s attention to their often-unappreciated beauty. Depicted in an abstract, black setting, with only a soft gray shadow placing the leaf within a larger environment, O’Keeffe’s forms “materialize like an apparition against the indeterminate blank background.” (C. Eldridge, Eloquent Objects: Georgia OKeeffe and Still-Life Art in New Mexico, exhibition catalogue, Memphis, Tennessee, 2014, p. 42) Monumental yet intimate, Autumn Leaf with White Flower brings together the artist’s most iconic motifs from her early career, which in turn reflect her own wonder at the beauty of nature.

Lot Essay

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) - Autumn Leaf with White Flower

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