Georgia O’Keeffe is not a painter I get usually get excited about. In some cases, I flat out don’t think her paintings even look that good. But, for some reason, I was drawn to one work in particular on a recent trip to the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting was The Black Place (1943) and it was tucked into a corner spot in the gallery showing the “Alfred Stieglitz Collection”, works belonging to Stieglitz, inherited by his widow O’Keeffe, and then donated to the museum on her passing. The gallery is more than half works by O’Keeffe, but there are also Stieglitz photographs and paintings by contemporaries Arthur Dove and Marsden Hartley.
The painting looks deceptively simple. There are essentially just two colors: the solid blue strip along the top and the green mass which is toned from a light sea-foam in the foreground to a near black grey-green at the center. I stood quite close to this painting at the museum to study it. (It’s in a corner, so there’s really nowhere to step back and get a wide view.) I didn’t even try a big picture view anyway though, since I was engrossed with studying the shading and with feeling the mood that the work generated. O’Keeffe has a number of other works that seem to be emotions or thoughts rather than things and I felt that was the case with this piece. It wasn’t until I posted this picture online – when I first looked at the work as a whole – that it finally dawned on me what the painting actually depicts; it is the a view from the desert floor looking out and up at a cliff wall with sky behind. I guess that in the gallery I was just so concerned with the ambiance that I didn’t connect the obvious dots.
The realization that this is an actual place – “The Black Place,” I later found out, was a real locale in New Mexico that O’Keeffe went to frequently to paint – does not change my initial reaction. The subtle blending of color, toned from the very light to the very dark evoked a strong reaction from me. I felt a sense of brooding like a slowly building momentum. It was not fear or even a darkness, but I felt it fit the title of The Black Place. There is something dynamic about the structure in the work – sharp point, converging fields, contrasts – but looking closely at the brushstrokes, I couldn’t see any starts or stops; the green flowed from one shade to another rather than beginning and ending. In contrast, it seemed that the line between land and sky was scored with a knife, or at the very least, a heavier coating of blue sky had been applied to create a lip. There was a conscious effort to mark that boundary in a way that was not at all present in the boundaries of the land.
I still don’t like her flowers or her cow skulls, and there is flat-out no reason to keep that monstrosity Sky Over Clouds IV (1965) on display other than the fact that it is the largest work in AIC’s collection. However, I may stop and look a little more carefully at a few of her works in the future to pick up on subtle, evocative emotions like those I got here.
Correction: This post was edited on 2/15/10 to fix the spellings of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz in several places.