The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s core exhibition, A Great American Artist. A Great American Story, reopened on March 1 with a host of new works from its permanent collection. Among them is the museum’s latest acquisition, Ritz Tower, a seminal painting from O’Keeffe’s New York period. The painting can be seen in a section of the exhibition called My New Yorks.
Soulful and dramatic, Ritz Tower (1928) captures an enigmatic view of the newly constructed luxury apartment hotel at East 57th Street and Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan. Created at the height of the Jazz Age, it’s regarded today as the embodiment of the spirit and allure of the great metropolis, as well as a singular moment in a career that spanned more than 70 years.
Acquired from a private collection in January, this oil on canvas is one of a small number of paintings of skyscrapers that O’Keeffe made while living in Manhattan with her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz. That it’s a nocturne makes it rarer still.
But it’s more than that. With its fluid rendering, Ritz Tower telegraphs an impromptu, free-flowing sensibility that stands in stark contrast with both her precisely rendered New Mexico work and other views of New York that she painted in the same time period. Yet her work shows the mastery of a mature and assured hand. As the museum’s head conservator, Dale Kronkright, explained, “This is her, almost at the peak of her powers in terms of mastering the paints and knowing how to create different visual effects.”
By the late 1920s, her compositions typically cleaved closely to any under-drawing she made on the canvas. Ritz Tower is an exception. O’Keeffe took liberties here, including in the architecture, the perspective, and even the path of a celestial object. These artful conceits are why Ritz Tower feels so alive.
1. The base of the tower
At the base of the painting, the tower’s Roman arches — which are lit from within — can appear to be solid objects. O’Keeffe distorted the background and foreground elements by flattening the perspective. The arches are one of several components she used to skewer the viewer’s sense of negative and positive space.
• The building itself is an off-white, Beaux-Arts-style structure that she’s rendered entirely black, save for the windows.
• Look at the bottom right of the painting: She uses contrasting light and dark sections to create tension and to abstract the building’s architecture so that it almost appears to teeter on a narrow base. The tower itself leans slightly, throwing the viewer off-balance.
• The painting itself is a narrow vertical composition that echoes the vertical structure of the tower.
2. The lamp light
At the heart of the painting is the egg-shaped globe of the street lamp. The halo of the vivid white orb draws attention away from the monolithic backdrop, even obscuring the architecture of the tower. That pulsating light anchors the eye. Try holding your hand up in front of the painting, as Kronkright suggested, and then take it away. Notice where your eye falls.
• Look closely at the top right of the halo and you may notice that O’Keeffe scraped away the paint representing a downward sloping section of the light pole. Using infrared imaging, Kronkright could tell that O’Keeffe removed the paint while it was still wet. Still, a ghostly trace of the curved pole remains.
• To create a translucent quality, she blended varnish with the black paint of the building. In contrast, she avoided using the technique in the lamp’s nimbus in order to create a more opaque effect.
3. The windows
As she painted Ritz Tower, O’Keeffe played with the arrangement and number of windows, and gave the final rendering a staccato quality, like the jazz of the era or the punches on a player piano roll. Note the drawn curtains, pulled shades, and drapes — details that suggest a human presence in this feat of 20th-century engineering. Ritz Tower was a residential building, after all.
• Step back and you may see that the placement of brighter windows draws the eye upward in a snaking pattern. “It speaks to the real subject of the painting: the energy and dynamism of the modern metropolis,” said Ariel Plotek, the museum’s curator of fine art.
4. The finials
Fidelity to the building’s actual design wasn’t O’Keeffe’s intention. She reduced her subject to its elemental forms. For instance, finials built into the corners of the structure feel almost gestural under the artist’s hand, giving it the imposing feeling of a Gothic cathedral. And they, too, force the eye straight up. “The experience is vertical,” Kronkright said. “Her other New York paintings were much more rectangular. This one goes straight up.”
5. The sky and its elements
Clouds (or is it smoke or steam?) run perpendicular to the tower, forming a backdrop and giving the painting a heady sense of motion. The building leans like a ship’s mast, seeming to sway in the direction of the billowing forms. A bright half-moon lights up the sky. Research suggests, though, that the moon could not have been in that part of the sky at the time she painted the canvas, making its placement purely an aesthetic choice.
• Cover the moon with your thumb, then take it away. Its presence electrifies the painting and makes for a more dynamic composition.
• O’Keeffe chose an unusual color palette for the nighttime sky, one she avoided in her paintings of the New Mexico skies — typically cobalt blue. Using a hand-held X-ray photoelectron spectrometer (which looks a bit like a Star Trek phaser), Kronkright was able to determine exactly what pigments she used: ultramarine blue with darker shades of Prussian blue, and a little black mixed with varnish for translucency. ◀