IN A ROOMFUL of modern masterpieces, Georgia O’Keeffe’s City Night stands out as particularly inspirational to me. As a female artist making her mark within the predominantly male art world of New York in the 1920s, O’Keeffe cut through the stereotypes of “women’s art” to create powerful portraits of the city that stood at the forefront of the avant-garde.
Recently, I was reminded of O’Keeffe’s hard-edged objectivity while curating a small exhibition of abstraction from the collection of the Minnesota Museum of American Art. While we wouldn’t call City Night an abstract work of art, it does present a series of dynamic, flat planes that reinforces the formal qualities of the painted surface in a very abstract way. It also helps the painting read as “modern.” Of course, this is confirmed (or supported) through the soaring monumentality of the buildings, which reflects a new, thoroughly American, urban experience.
I love the fact that glimpsed between the cold, hard, monolithic buildings is the hazy moon, “the inconstant moon,” according to Shakespeare, which remarkably is the one element in the picture that calls us back to our humanness, our nature as changeable, variable, inimitable creatures. To gaze at the moon—indeed, to find the moon at all amidst all the obstructions of the concrete jungle—suggests a human longing that cannot be eclipsed by modernity’s new sense of power and self.
Having written my dissertation on a female artist, I understand the enormous challenges women faced in order to become part of the canon, or official story, of art history. As still the only female artist in a roomful of men, O’Keeffe inspires not only through this amazing painting, but also as one of the few women who played the game of “canon roulette” and won.