Who Will Paint New York?
The World's New Art Center and the New York Paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe
ANNA C. CHAVE
To Europeans visiting America in the early decades of the twentieth century, New York was the undisputed center of modernity and the skyscraper its most telling emblem. Although these architectural wonders formed the very core of the city's identity, they were regarded as elusive candidates for artistic representation, especially in the medium of painting. American artists who relied on the conventions of European modernism to capture the spirit and energy of the city had not done it justice as a physical presence and national icon. As Anna Chave points out, the task fell to Georgia O'Keeffe, an artist prized for her independence from these foreign influences, to capture the overwhelming power and visual splendor of the city's architecture.
According to Chave, O'Keeffe's attainment also derived from her personal circumstances, as she was the first artist to actually reside in a skyscraper and thus experience with regularity the unique aspects of life atop an urban mountain. Her views of buildings such as the Shelton Hotel, with uncomplicated silhouettes that accentuate their sturdy form and imposing height, possess a clarity and directness that underscored the city's iconic status. Long before abstract expressionism was hailed as the quintessential expression of modern urban angst, and therefore credited with reorienting the sphere of cultural influence from Paris to New York, Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings of New York skyscrapers fashioned a compelling image of the American city thought to embody the very essence of urban modernity.
Standard histories of modern art tell how New York became the world's new art center after World War II through the ascendance of the New York School spearheaded by Jackson Pollock. Where United States artists had historically journeyed to Europe for cultural nourishment and to associate or train with renowned artists, Pollock declined to make the trip. It followed not merely from that, but from the startling way he made paintings, that Pollock's art lent itself as a fulcrum for the shift of the world's modern art center from Paris to New York City. And, though he produced his famed, poured paintings not in the metropolis itself but in a distant Long Island barn, Pollock's art would still be called "an attempt to cope with urban life; [for] it dwells entirely in the lonely jungle of immediate sensations, impulses and notions:" 1
Pollock was not the first U.S. artist to refuse on principle a European sojourn: Georgia O'Keeffe