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O’Keeffe Museum buys rare NY cityscape

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

During the Roaring ’20s, Georgia O’Keeffe’s male peers discouraged her from painting New York subjects.

In 1928, the artist rebutted that sexism with “Ritz Tower.”

“Ritz Tower,” 1928, oil by Georgia O’Keeffe. (Courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum bought that rare painting of the city skyscraper in October.

The dazzling image shows the hotel tower piercing the electric night’s clouds the way O’Keeffe shattered artistic boundaries. The scene bristles with energy through punches of light, soaring architecture and a glowing half-moon.

“The men decided they didn’t want me to paint New York,” O’Keeffe said later in her life during an audio interview. “They told me to ‘leave New York to the men.’ I was furious!”

The museum bought the painting from a private collector through Santa Fe’s Owings Gallery. Last fall, museum officials sold three of the artist’s lesser works for a total of $19.5 million to add to its acquisition fund.

O’Keeffe curator Ariel Plotek declined to reveal “Ritz Tower’s” price. The painting will be on view at the museum beginning March 1.

“This is something we’ve really wanted for a very long time,” Plotek said.

The work fills a hole in the museum’s collection. O’Keeffe painted only a handful of New York skyscraper scenes, Plotek said.

“It’s one of O’Keeffe’s best paintings of New York views,” he said. “It was a very productive year for O’Keeffe, but one we associate first with the flowers she did with (photographer and later husband Alfred) Stieglitz in the 1920s.

“It’s very unusual,” Plotek continued. “It’s the city at night and the way she depicted electric light.”

More familiar today as the Ritz Hotel, the building was built as a residential hotel.

The museum owns one additional New York scene, a work O’Keeffe painted in New Mexico in the 1970s based on her 1926 painting “City Night.” The original now hangs in the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

“Ritz Tower” reveals her move toward abstraction, Plotek said.

“Our scientific analysis confirms that she made more changes to this painting than we would expect to find in O’Keeffe’s painting at this time,” he said. “The tower is really narrowed and abstracted, giving it a more serrated, geometric quality. O’Keeffe is taking liberties with the building.

“She says at this time, ‘You can’t paint New York as you see it; you have to paint it as it feels.’ ”

The glowing sun shape orbited by a halo is actually a street lamp, he said. Photography cast a tremendous influence upon her imagery.

“She’s retouching (Stieglitz’s) photographs at this time,” Plotek said.

“Georgia O’Keeffe,” 1920-1922, gelatin silver print by Alfred Stieglitz. (Courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum”

O’Keeffe began a series of abstract charcoal drawings in 1915 that represented a radical break with tradition, making her one of the very first American artists to practice pure abstraction. She mailed some of these early works to a friend in New York City, who showed them to Stieglitz, who was the first to exhibit her work in 1916.

By the mid-1920s, O’Keeffe was recognized as one of America’s most important and successful artists, known for her paintings of New York skyscrapers – an essentially American image of modernity – as well as flowers.

O’Keeffe lived and painted for decades in Abiquiu in northern New Mexico, using the local landscape as inspiration for countless works. She died in Santa Fe in 1986.