Courtesy photoGeorgia O’Keeffe’s “Autumn Leaves

Courtesy photoGeorgia O’Keeffe’s “Autumn Leaves

Big ideas in O’Keeffe’s small pictures

Anyone familiar with reproductions of Georgia O’Keeffe’s looming close-ups of flowers, fruits and trees may be surprised by the original artwork, an array of which is now on view in “Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George” at the de Young Museum.

Many paintings are very small, some only 8 inches by 10 inches, and few are more than 30 inches in width or height.

Significantly, some of O’Keeffe’s portraits by her photographer husband are among the largest objects.

Still, when you stand close, regardless of size, the landscapes and objects come to life, with colors both vivid and muted inviting the viewer to step into the picture.

Organized by the Hyde Collection and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, “Modern Nature” showcases O’Keeffe’s work from her Lake George years in upstate New York. Between 1918 and 1934, O’Keeffe took seasonal visits upstate, staying on the family estate of photographer Alfred Stieglitz — her early champion, mentor and husband.

While O’Keeffe’s work at Lake George will be recognized by those who know her from her more famous late period in the Southwest, the 55 works seen here have an emerging style, subtly distinct from her artistry in Santa Fe, N.M.

The exhibit is unusual in its emphasis on biographical and background information accompanying the paintings, which range from O’Keeffe’s realistic early work (she was born in 1887 and died at age 98) to her later, increasingly abstract paintings. O’Keeffe’s quotes surround the works on the walls, including this stunner: “I’ve been absolutely terrified every moment of my life and I’ve never let it keep me from doing a single thing that I wanted to do.”

All the interpretation around the exhibit (including an audio guide) occasionally goes into scholarly, salacious excess. For example, an explanation of one painting suggests that a decaying, medium-size and small leaf may address Stieglitz’s affair with a woman 40 years his junior, with the middle leaf representing the middle-aged painter standing between an older man and a younger woman. If Freud wrote art criticism, he might have said that sometimes a leaf is just a leaf.

Of special significance is the plentiful background material on Stieglitz, whose influence on American art stretches beyond his mentorship of O’Keeffe. He pushed photography to be acknowledged as an accepted art form, and promoted the best in American and European avant-garde art from the early 20th century.

His Fifth Avenue gallery, known by its street number, 291, facilitated the entry of Rodin, Matisse, Cézanne and Picasso into the American consciousness and beyond the established familiarity of European expatriates.

IF YOU GO

“Modern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George”

Where: de Young Museum, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, S.F.

When: 9:30 a.m. to 5:15 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays, closes May 11

Tickets: $25

Contact: (415) 750-3600, www.deyoung.famsf.orgArt & Museumsartsde Young MuseumGeorgia O’KeeffeModern Nature: Georgia O’Keeffe and Lake George

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