Those lucky enough to escape central New Jersey at August’s end might take a detour to the Portland Museum of Art in Maine, where Georgia O’Keeffe and the Camera: The Art of Identity is on view through Sept. 7. With 60 photographs of the world-famous modernist and 18 of her paintings, the exhibit follows O’Keeffe’s public image from a sexually liberated being who painted abstract forms the public interpreted as symbols of female sexuality (and that she adamantly denied!) to her later public persona as a solitary older woman in nun-like clothing. Ansel Adams and others showed her in black dress with black or white head covering, surrounded by sun-bleached animal bones and stark Southwestern architecture. Even the name of her final home in New Mexico, Ghost Ranch, suggested living with death.
Adams made numerous images of her in these later years, her aging mien contrasted with the undulating folds of the landscape.
The Princeton connection here is David McAlpin — philanthropist and investment banker who died at home in Princeton in 1989 at age 92. The founder of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art who endowed the first chair in photography at Princeton University began his vast photo collection with the work of Ansel Adams in the 1930s. McAlpin’s friend, Arthur Park, owned Ghost Ranch and told O’Keeffe about it. Todd Webb, Eliot Porter and Arnold Newman are some of the other photographers who were drawn to O’Keeffe’s image at Ghost Ranch.
O’Keeffe, who suffered a breakdown in 1933 during her marriage to Alfred Stieglitz, wrote that the bones she collected were “strangely more living than the animals walking around… the bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive in the desert…”
An early plaster sculpture made at the death of O’Keeffe’s mother bears striking similarity to the horse skull that became a theme in her later paintings. It also speaks of her isolation in the desert, with she lived with organizational simplicity.
In her painting “Wall With Green Door” (1953), she uses only two shades of putty, pale blue and wintergreen to convey a composition — a green square on an adobe wall, with earth and sky. In its simplicity it resonates a deeper message, along with all that has lead up to it.