ANDOVER — Should it surprise that, in an exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s photographs, there are nearly as many pictures of her as by her? Maybe a little, but not really. O’Keeffe long ago transcended the simple job description of artist for the broader label of cultural icon, drawing scrutiny — and mostly adoration — for everything from her fashion choices to her home decor to her culinary panache (”Dinner with Georgia O’Keeffe,” with 50 of her recipes, was published in 2017). With O’Keeffe, it can be all too easy to be hyper-aware of her fame without knowing exactly what she’s famous for.
I don’t mean that as a slight to her painterly gifts, which are abundant and unique, a supple and soft-edged version of modernism driven by nature and entirely her own. But I do mean to acknowledge her very specific intentions: O’Keeffe was deliberate about building herself a durable myth that would give her work immortality of her own design. She was open to media, careful to appear in Architectural Digest as well as the New Yorker. Almost 40 years after her death, the holistic O’Keeffe brand remains almost entirely the one she made. But is it possible that her branding campaign was too successful? I often think so. “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” a wildly successful 2017 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum devoted to her personal aesthetic — the cookbook was timed as a companion piece — noted only in passing that she was an artist at all.
“Georgia O’Keeffe: Photographer,” just opened at the Addison Gallery of American Art, makes no such omissions. Nor does it make any apologies for profiting from her renown. The show, created by the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, is a subtle but sure capitalization on O’Keeffe’s brand-name recognition: The title wall bears a floor-to-ceiling, black-and-white photo of the artist, amid the mesas of the New Mexico desert, camera in hand and draped in a white kimono. Taken by the photographer Todd Webb, a friend and frequent guest, in 1959, it’s the dominant photograph here.
It’s also a not-so-subtle nod to her unique star power — who among us even knows what Mark Rothko or Edward Hopper even looked like, let alone their sartorial choices? — and a savvy bit of exhibition building. O’Keeffe’s pictures in this show are mainly of walls and doorways and roads and ladders and the occasional canyon; they’re tiny, mostly, and usually in subtle shades of gray. Every O’Keeffe exhibition is forced to grapple with her celebrity. In this case, it’s more blessing than curse. This is a show that needed pop — something that a photo of the artist herself, with her regal, pointed features and impeccable fashion sense, always provides.
About her pictures — because that’s what we’re here for, aren’t we? — I don’t know if I’d call them particularly remarkable on their own. That’s not to suggest a failing. O’Keeffe herself saw her photos more as means than as ends, celluloid sketches and outtakes that helped further her thinking on canvas.
In her marriage to Alfred Stieglitz, a bonafide photographic groundbreaker, O’Keeffe learned a few things about the medium — chief among them, maybe, that its technical fussiness wasn’t an avenue for art-making she wanted to pursue. Instead, she made photography loose and breezy, an ad hoc visual notebook. She snapped Polaroids spontaneously and took rolls of film to the drugstore to be developed, so as not to be bothered by the slow work of the darkroom.
She started taking pictures in earnest only in the 1950s, long after leaving New York (and Stieglitz, a serial philanderer) for the high desert in Abiquiú, the hamlet near Santa Fe where she would spend the rest of her life. For her, photography was just another way of seeing, which the show takes — and in some spots, inflicts — pains to explore.
A small gallery is subtitled “Reframing,” devoted to the subtle compositional shifts O’Keeffe explored, one photograph to the next. I get it: It’s a way of seeing an artist’s mind at work, and the pictures, slowly, do elucidate her evolving compositional sense. Composition, foundational to any kind of picture-making, was impressed on O’Keeffe early on by her most important teacher, Arthur Wesley Dow, who is not coincidentally featured in a parallel exhibition down the hall. But dwelling so deeply on the mechanics of an artistic practice can feel less like enlightenment and more like homework.
To be fair, some pictures are beguiling: A pair of photos of Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach on Maui, made on a trip sponsored by the Dole fruit company in 1939, are darkly lustrous and inscrutable. Others (most) are much less so: tiny shifts in perspective of the doorway of her adobe courtyard, or the roofline, or the door. If you’re waiting for revelation here, you won’t find it. Often, it’s a cook’s tour of sausage-making, minus the sausage. The exhibition’s curators, no doubt, recognized a certain dryness to the offering; they punctuate her photographs with paintings here and there, and, of course, pictures of O’Keeffe herself.
Things improve in a gallery titled, simply, “Light.” Here, O’Keeffe’s lens is more deliberate and curious, working with the medium’s inherent ability to capture contrast, dark to light: A pair of pictures called “Roofless Room,” from 1959-60, are near abstract, sharp shadows thrown through a scrim of latillas, shifting as the day drags on. Another captivating, oh-so-subtle series depicts Glen Canyon dawn to dusk, its rock walls trading shadow and light left to right on the way toward sunset. In other pictures, she tracks bright sunshine across the courtyard as it carves slashes of shadow across the dark clay walls.
There’s a sense of foreshadowing in them, if you’ll pardon the pun, of the artist’s paintings of simple, reduced forms fashioned after proportions of wall and window in her home. Seeing them materially as photographs — same composition, proportional kin — is satisfying, in a quiet way.
There’s certainly something charming about sharing O’Keeffe’s eye through the viewfinder, seeing just as she did. It teases at the notion of sharing space in her mind. Still, even the truly ingenious have mundane thoughts, with epiphanies and breakthroughs as rare as diamonds. That’s why a finished, deeply deliberate work of art — like, say, any of her paintings — is special and singular in the first place.
With her camera, O’Keeffe was mostly, playfully, working things through. Looking so closely at such offhand bits of her visual record feels mildly like a betrayal, like peering through a crack in the veneer of her carefully cultivated brand. It’s humanizing, sure. But for someone whose own self-image was such deliberate artifice, I have to wonder how much is too much.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: PHOTOGRAPHER
Through June 12, Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy. 180 Main St., Andover. 978-749-4015, www.addisongallery.org