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A skyscraper with a prominent, illuminated Rose Window and golden roof at center is otherwise dark against an equally dark city night. The overall blackness is punctuated by tiny illuminated rectangles of windows at left and circles suggesting streetlights and headlights on a road that travels in perspective up the painting at right. To the right of the road are the even, gridlike gray windows of a sparsely illuminated office building. A skyscraper with a prominent, illuminated Rose Window and golden roof at center is otherwise dark against an equally dark city night. The overall blackness is punctuated by tiny illuminated rectangles of windows at left and circles suggesting streetlights and headlights on a road that travels in perspective up the painting at right. To the right of the road are the even, gridlike gray windows of a sparsely illuminated office building.

Skyscraper Living: Georgia O’Keeffe and the Shelton Hotel

Inside the Exhibition


For many years of her life, Georgia O’Keeffe was a New Yorker.

Between 1918 and 1949, she called midtown Manhattan home, spending each autumn through spring in the city. Beginning in 1924 and for the next dozen years, the artist lived seasonally at the Shelton Hotel, a spectacular residential skyscraper on Lexington Avenue. Her distinctive and dynamic painting The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y., part of the Art Institute’s collection, has long captivated us as curators. The artist herself regarded it as one of her best. Decades later, she recalled how the composition came about:

I went out one morning to look at [the Shelton Hotel] and there was the optical illusion of a bite out of one side of the tower made by the sun, with sunspots against the building and against the sky.

—Georgia O’Keeffe, 1976

Ablaze with color, the painting captures a fleeting juxtaposition of the natural world and the human-built environment. From a street-level position looking east at the monumental building, O’Keeffe portrayed the mass of the Shelton at center, flanked by other rising forms. She combined the study of geometric shapes with waves, orbs, and flares of light, softening hard edges and endowing the composition with a measure of force and movement. O’Keeffe based her work on her personal perceptions, and here she showcased a daring individual response to the novel structure of the skyscraper.

Georgia O’Keeffe. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Leigh B. Block. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

This work was truly the inspiration for the upcoming exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: “My New Yorks.” While O’Keeffe’s images of flowers and Southwestern landscapes have long been widely celebrated, the artist’s city subjects, as a body of work, have received relatively little attention. This show is the first to seriously examine O’Keeffe’s paintings, drawings, and pastels of the built environment while situating them in the diverse context of other compositions she created in the 1920s and early 1930s. These years represent a pivotal moment of experimentation as she developed her modernist vision and seized her place in the art world. O’Keeffe intensively explored New York as subject matter, resulting in innovative, singular compositions that reveal both the geometries and sensations of a changing urban setting. She had big expectations for her New York canvases, which she called “my New Yorks,” and this exhibition aims to grant them their due attention as bold visual statements as well as contextualize them within this breakout moment in O’Keeffe’s career.

My New Yorks would turn the world over.

—Georgia O’Keeffe, in a letter to an art critic, 1925

Born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887, O’Keeffe spent her early decades in the Midwest and on the East Coast, studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1905 to 1906 and the following year at the Art Students League in Manhattan. Over the next decade, she threw herself into new experiences—particularly as an art teacher—and traveled the country in the process, based at times in New York, Virginia, South Carolina, and Texas. In 1918, persuaded by the photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, then her romantic partner and later her husband, O’Keeffe relocated to New York to focus on her own artistic career. The pair then settled into a new rhythm: From late fall through spring, they lived in Manhattan. Summer and early autumn were spent upstate at Lake George with Stieglitz’s extended family. O’Keeffe took occasional trips to paint elsewhere, but this back-and-forth between urban and rural New York persisted until 1929, when O’Keeffe added New Mexico to her seasonal itinerary.

A black-and-white photo shows a city view from high up in a building. In the foreground, a light-skinned woman,Georgia O'Keeffe, smiles from the corner raining of a building just barely in the frame. Beyond her is a wide five-story building and parking lot, a river bisecting the image laterally, and a suspension bridge beyond.

O’Keeffe in New York

“Alfred Stieglitz Made Georgia O’Keeffe Famous,” Life, Feb. 14, 1938, 31

For several years in New York, the couple lived together at various low-rise apartment buildings in Midtown. Then, in November 1924, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz got their first taste of skyscraper living, moving into the newly opened Shelton Hotel for a one-month stay while they awaited the completion of renovations at another apartment building—an older, four-story brownstone on East 58th Street.

A black-and-white photo shows a tiered skyscraper with five arched doorways at its base. The bottom two floors are a light-colored stone, while the numerous stories above are a darker brick. It stands alone, surrounded by gray sky.

The Shelton Hotel, New York, view from west

Oliver Reagan, ed., American Architecture of the Twentieth Century, vol. 1 (New York: Architectural Book Publishing Co., 1927), pl. 1

The Shelton must have been a revelation to the senses. Located on Lexington Avenue between 48th and 49th Streets, the building was the first of its kind in New York, allowing residential living above the 11th floor. Amid the era’s flurry of upward construction, the 1916 zoning laws codified how buildings were to rise on their lots, limiting the upper footprints of structures so that light and air continued to reach the street canyons below.

A black-and-white photo shows a corner of a brick skyscraper, highlighting its architectural details. These nclude an intricate pattern of arches built into the building's brickwork and an open structure with a roof on the balcony. A man stands perched at the very corner of the building, tiny by comparison, looking out to the city below.

Corner pavilion on the 16th floor, Shelton Hotel, New York

Claude Bragdon, “The Shelton Hotel, New York, Arthur Loomis Harmon, Architect,” Architectural Record 58, no. 1 (July 1925): 9

Architects such as Arthur Loomis Harmon, who designed the Shelton, responded with innovative plans featuring setbacks at various upper stories. In addition to panoramic views from apartment windows, the hotel offered plentiful amenities for guests: outdoor terraces, dining rooms, a library, a billiard room, a gymnasium, a bowling alley, squash courts, and numerous on-site services. High-rise living was a new kind of city living, and certainly a privileged one.

Stieglitz and O’Keeffe felt stretched by the cost of the Shelton and didn’t initially pursue it as something long-term. But that quickly changed when they could not secure the brownstone on 58th Street the following season. And so in November 1925, the couple returned to the Shelton and took an apartment on the 11th floor. In subsequent seasons, they moved higher and higher in the building, living on the 28th floor from 1926 to 1927 and the 30th floor from 1927 to 1928. Apartment 3003 became their preferred space, and they returned year after year. O’Keeffe discerned the advantages of her skyscraper studio and, indeed, the Shelton Hotel marketed its spaces as particularly suited to the artistic set.

A series of three black-and-white advertisements placed side by side, each featuring the image of an artist with paintbrush in hand standing before a painting of New York's Shelton Hotel. The artist in the first two paintings is a man; in the third, it is a woman. Two of the ads emphasize that the building being advertised is "Now for men and women."

Advertisements for the Shelton Hotel

International Studio 80, nos. 332–34 (Jan. 1925, Feb. 1925, and Mar. 1925)

When I came to live at the Shelton about three years ago … I couldn’t afford it. But I can now, so of course I’m going to stay. Yes I realize it’s unusual for an artist to want to work way up near the roof of a big hotel in the heart of the roaring city but I think that’s just what the artist of today needs for stimulus. He has to have a place where he can behold the city as a unit before his eyes but at the same time have enough space left to work.

—Georgia O’Keeffe, 1928

In addition to The Shelton with Sunspots, N.Y., the artist tackled a number of other “Sheltons,” as she called them, including Shelton Hotel, N.Y., No. I and The Shelton at Night. (The latter, fortunately, was photographed prior to O’Keeffe’s decision to destroy the canvas.)

Not only did she paint the building from street level, but she also made the most of her skyscraper home’s elevated vistas, which overlooked the East River and the industrial skyline of Queens beyond.

O’Keeffe developed her East River series over several years in the late 1920s, rendering the skyline from her apartment windows in an array of media and vocabularies.

This urban panorama was her daily view, and O’Keeffe showcased its wondrous variety in distinctive compositions that convey her personal visions of a dynamic city. High-rise living at the Shelton kick-started O’Keeffe’s urban investigation and a remarkable body of work—her New Yorks.

—Annelise K. Madsen, Gilda and Henry Buchbinder Associate Curator, Arts of the Americas, and Sarah Kelly Oehler, Field-McCormick Chair and Curator, Arts of the Americas, and vice president, Curatorial Strategy

Georgia O’Keeffe: “My New Yorks” opens to members May 30.


Georgia O’Keeffe: “My New Yorks” Corporate Sponsor

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Major support is provided by the Harris Family Foundation in memory of Bette and Neison Harris, an anonymous donor, Richard F. and Christine F. Karger, the Shure Charitable Trust, Richard and Ann Carr, Pam Conant, Constance and David Coolidge, Mr. and Mrs. John T. Golitz, the Jentes Family, Loretta and Allan Kaplan, and Margot Levin Schiff and the Harold Schiff Foundation.

Additional funding is provided by the Jack and Peggy Crowe Fund, the Suzanne and Wesley M. Dixon Exhibition Fund, and The Regenstein Foundation Fund.

This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

Members of the Luminary Trust provide annual leadership support for the museum’s operations, including exhibition development, conservation and collection care, and educational programming. The Luminary Trust includes an anonymous donor, Karen Gray-Krehbiel and John Krehbiel, Jr., Kenneth C. Griffin, the Harris Family Foundation in memory of Bette and Neison Harris, Josef and Margot Lakonishok, Ann and Samuel M. Mencoff, Sylvia Neil and Dan Fischel, Cari and Michael J. Sacks, and the Earl and Brenda Shapiro Foundation.

Additional support is provided by

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