What makes New York Night by Georgia O’Keeffe such a special painting?
- Glimmering window panes
- The machine age and Precisionism
- An avant-garde squad
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New York Night proves Georgia O’Keeffe didn’t only paint skulls, desert, and flowers. It’s from her younger years as a burgeoning artist in New York City. Swept into the energy and industry of Manhattan, she captured the machine age on canvas. New York Night works as a polar opposite to her later work in New Mexico. O’Keeffe’s fundamentals persisted despite subject and location shifts. For instance, she remained a Precisionist painter throughout her career.
If you’re familiar with O’Keeffe, you know this precision. The deep dive magnification of her work gives it a misleading sense of simplicity. It also deepens viewer perspective on her subject. She articulates capillaries in a flower petal with a palpable pulse. O’Keeffe makes it look easy. As if staring into the microscopic beads of pollen on a stamen is an everyday matter. Her flowers feel familiar. But, in truth, most of us never looked at florals this way before we saw her work. She does this with New York Night too. This Manhattan feels somehow real and like a dream at once.
O’Keeffe treats us to city details with the same keen gaze she casts upon flowers. She illuminates the scene with meticulous clarity. My favorite bits in this masterpiece are the precious glass panes. Each window works as a bright gesticulation – like a sign of life. Darkness swamps the scene. Its depth translates as the mask of sleep over a city; a temporary stillness but also a reminder of death. The fact that humans all need sleep represents our vulnerability. As we all need rest, we must also die.
But glimmering windows shine amidst O’Keeffe’s New York Night. Her sky and shadows delve the deepest blacks while windows glimmer and glow among O’Keeffe’s varying shades of doom. Glass panes sparkle in pristine white. These crisp lines set off the drastic difference between asleep and awake New Yorkers. After all, each bright window points out a conscious person in a room or car. While the swaths of darkness show us where the city sleeps. The lights flicker like candles at a vigil. They also cast a sheen to contrast the shadowy planes and differentiate between skyscrapers.
Georgia O’Keeffe painted this in 1929, an avant-garde period for Manhattan. In fact, she joined a circle of experimental artists. O’Keeffe gained entry through fellow artist, Alfred Stieglitz. A champion of the avant-garde, he loved O’Keeffe’s work. In fact, he loved her too. She joined his friend group and shared their interest in city life. It was the machine age. So, her fascination with NYC matched the times as well as this art movement. It also gave her work a dynamic edge.
Mammoth skyscrapers dominate New York Night with darkness. It settles the painting into a sleepy state. But O’Keeffe energizes the subdued setting with fresh bright windows in various shapes. Their randomness also delights the eye. That’s because viewers know these box buildings are quite the opposite.
Built on a precise, measured grid, everything about them in daylight screams order. They’re machine-made. The lit windows add arbitrary punctuation to this automated world. It’s a sign of the humanity that animates Manhattan. Instead of a still and sleepy, night, O’Keeffe gives us the pounding heart of New York City. The Big Apple cliché rings true – it never sleeps.
New York Night – FAQs
Why is Georgia O’Keeffe’s painting, New York Night, important?
New York Night points to O’Keeffe’s connection with the late 1920’s NYC Precisionist movement. She made a major contribution to this art period, which straddled the machine age as well. It’s important because it predicts that O’Keeffe’s precise technique sets her apart and makes her work memorable.
In fact, she uses this same technique for the skull and flower paintings that would cannonball her career later. After all, when fans think of Georgia O’Keeffe it’s likely that her magnified flowers come to mind first. But it’s also edifying to see how she developed this unique technique. New York Night gives us clues about her process.
How did Georgia O’Keeffe paint New York Night in 1929?
The main building in New York Night is the Hotel Beverly, now known as the Benjamin Tower. O’Keeffe lived across the way from this iconic skyscraper. Her 30th floor room at the Shelton Hotel gave O’Keeffe a perfect view. That explains the helicopter perspective.
On the technical side, she zooms in on the scene in her signature style. O’Keeffe worked in oil paint with a gentle and precise perfection of detail. It’s one of the reasons she will always be remembered as a foremost precisionist.
What happened between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz?
Fireworks. The artists met like a conflagration of interests and expertise in 1914 NYC. O’Keeffe joined his avant-garde buddy group. This helped ignite her career. She also ended up marrying Stieglitz.
These two major 20th century artists wrote each other letters as often as couples of today text – two to three times a day. He was 52 and a celebrity photographer when they met. She was 28; an unknown. Their love was volatile but true. They stayed together until Alfred Stieglitz died in 1946.
ENJOYED THIS New York Night ANALYSIS?
O’Keeffe, Georgia (1976). Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: Viking Press.
O’Keeffe, Georgia (1988). Some Memories of Drawings. Albuquerque, NM: University of New Mexico Press.
The Benjamin website
“Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986): East River from the Thirtieth Story of the Shelton Hotel, 1928”. New Britain Museum of American Art. Archived from the original on June 24, 2016.
Greenough, Sarah, ed. (2011). My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Volume One, 1915–1933 (Annotated ed.). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
“The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y., 1926”. Art Institute of Chicago.
Eleanor Tufts; National Museum of Women in the Arts; International Exhibitions Foundation (1987). American women artists, 1830-1930. International Exhibitions Foundation for the National Museum of Women in the Arts.
Check out the Georgia O’Keeffe museum online