Fifth Avenue and the High Road to Taos: Mabel Dodge, Georgia O'Keeffe, and New York City

Revised from a series of posts about Mabel Dodge and Georgia O'Keeffe's intertwined lives in New York and New Mexico, originally published on this site in 2008. 

I. Introduction

Mabel Dodge (1879-1962), the wealthy heiress at 23 Fifth Avenue, and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), the famous artist whose first exhibit was held at 291 Fifth Avenue, could have lived out the rest of their lives in New York. In 1917 Dodge married painter Maurice Sterne and had her eye on a new apartment at 23 Washington Square North. In April of 1917 Alfred Stieglitz exhibited a series of O'Keeffe's watercolors at his 291 gallery, and soon the two would be living together. They married in 1924.

After a series of nervous ailments, Dodge decided her future was in the west. In December 1917 she moved to Taos, New Mexico with her husband and their friend, Elsie Clews Parsons. Twelve years later, in the summer of 1929, O'Keeffe traveled to New Mexico with her friend, Beck Strand. The two stayed at Mabel's ranch. Mabel had divorced Sterne and married Tony Luhan, a Native American. For O'Keeffe, the visit presented a new palette, not just for her art but for her life. Upon returning to New York her art career blossomed (so to speak), but in 1932 and 1933 she also suffered from bouts of psychoneurosis. In 1934, still recuperating, she returned to New Mexico and found her ranch.

(left) Mabel Dodge Luhan. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1934, and (right) Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1950.

II. Ladies of the Canyon: Mabel Dodge and Georgia O'Keeffe

A Scene from Lower Fifth Avenue
Fifth Avenue at 23rd Street, looking south

Mabel Dodge

Mabel Dodge, for four years during the 1910s, occupied an elegant apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 9th Street, a space she enveloped in white. She painted the woodwork white, papered the walls white, and she covered the windows and floors with white curtains and white rugs. She served white wine at lunch, and she often wore white dresses. She created a place where her identity could take shape, and she filled the space with other people who had already defined themselves - socialists, painters, Bolsheviks, newspaper columnists, poets and anarchists, who could give her a new sense of self against all that white.

After repainting her apartment, she suffered an apparent nervous collapse, if not a clinical breakdown. She heard ghosts in the telephone receiver, and she saw the word "EVIL" appear to her in the form of a giant blue-grey smile. She could be original - the Paterson Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden was her idea, or she could be petty and petulant, strung out on a guy like John Reed. She wouldn't be happy until the 1920s, when she had moved to New Mexico and where all the adobe houses were painted white.

Georgia O'Keeffe

"One can't paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt."

"Now and then when I get an idea for a picture, I think, how ordinary. Why paint that old rock? Why not go for a walk instead? But then I realize that to someone else it may not seem so ordinary."

- quotes by Georgia O'Keeffe

In 1925, Georgia O'Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz moved into the Shelton Hotel at Lexington and 49th Street (now the New York Marriott East Side) and lived there for 12 years. Their apartment afforded excellent views of Midtown and a window onto the dazzling skyscraper race of the 1920s. O'Keeffe had already started painting her signature flowers, but she sketched, drew, and painted the buildings out her window, ones with interesting shapes. She made approximately forty works of buildings in the New York skyline, including City Night, 1926, Shelton Hotel, N.Y. No.1, 1926, Shelton with Sunspots, 1926, Radiator Building-Night, New York, 1927, and New York Night, 1928-1929.

By 1929 O'Keeffe grew disillusioned with her marriage and with New York. She welcomed the invitation to spend the summer at Mabel Dodge Luhan's home in Taos.

By the early 1910s, the proliferation of tall New York buildings along Fifth Avenue and other thoroughfares cast the streets in darkness, and it grew common to refer to these places as "canyons." By 1920, during the early days of the building boom, new landowners tore down Mabel Dodge's house at 23 Fifth Avenue and the 291 Fifth Avenue building that housed Stieglitz's gallery and replaced them with larger buildings in the modern style.

O'Keeffe was one of many fellow New York artist making the pilgrimage to New Mexico. John Sloan visited Santa Fe in 1919, the same year as Mabel Dodge made her move, and he bought a house there in 1920. He spent four months of every year in Santa Fe from 1920 to 1950. Sloan learned of the place from his pioneering mentor, Robert Henri, who had visited in 1916 an 1917. It was a craze really, one that also attracted Marsden Hartley, John Marin, and Stuart Davis. American modernism, with its taste for the exotic, couldn't do without the New Mexican landscape and its people.

III. Gertrude Stein, The Big Bear Buddha of Bryant Park

"In a large studio in Paris, hung with paintings by Renoir, Matisse and Picasso, Gertrude Stein is doing with words what Picasso is doing with paint. She is impelling language to induce new states of consciousness, and in doing so language becomes with her a creative art rather than a mirror of history." - from SPECULATIONS, OR POST-IMPRESSIONS IN PROSE by Mabel Dodge (Arts and Decoration, March, 1913). Dodge's essay on the modernist, experimental writing of Gertrude Stein helped popularize the author in the United States. The essay was published and distributed at the 1913 Armory Show, the landmark blockbuster exhibition that introduced European modernism to New York.

Gertrude Stein and Mabel Dodge had frequent misunderstandings and did not always get along. At one point Dodge asked Gertrude's brother, Leo, why Gertrude seemed so distant, and according to Dodge, "he laughed and said because there was a doubt in her mind about who was the bear and who was leading the bear!" (Mabel Dodge Luhan, Movers and Shakers. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1936.)

Image: Sculpture of Gertrude Stein, Bryant Park. On the right, behind Stein's left shoulder, is the base of the Radiator Building, the subject of one of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings. The sculpture is a casting based on a 1923 model made in Paris by Jo Davidson (1883-1952).

IV. Mabel Dodge Sees Art By "A Schoolteacher Out West"

Flashback: In the Fall of 1915 Georgia O'Keeffe was teaching at Columbia College in Columbia, South Carolina where she started working on a series of charcoal drawings. She tried out new techniques she had learned from her NY teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, especially a new way to treat light and dark, and the resulting work was like nothing she had done before. She sent some of these drawings to her close art school friend, Anita Pollitzer, who in turn showed them to Alfred Stieglitz at his 291 Gallery on January 1, 1916.

Every artist could use an Anita Pollitzer. The daughter of a wealthy Charleston, South Carolina family, Pollitzer could turn on the Southern charm. A burgeoning artist in her youth, she later made a name for herself as a suffragette and activist for the National Women's Party. Showing charcoal drawings of an unknown artist friend to someone as established as Stieglitz takes a great deal of panache.

Stieglitz loved the drawings and exhibited them without O'Keeffe's knowledge. She was angered that he did not ask her consent, but after talking it over with him, she agreed to let him exhibit her work. In August of 1916 she moved to Canyon, Texas to teach at West Texas State Normal College.

Mabel Dodge didn't often leave her place at 23 Fifth Avenue, but the 291 Gallery, a mile or so up the avenue, was "one of the few places where I went." One day in 1916 she met painter Marsden Hartley at the gallery, and Stieglitz "showed us some curious black and white drawings by a schoolteacher out west. Presently he hung them on the walls...This was the first work we saw of Georgia O'Keeffe." (Movers and Shakers)

Image: Georgia O'Keeffe, Drawing No. 13, 1915. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Alfred Stieglitz Collection.

V. The Building that Would Glow at Night: Raymond Hood, Georgia O'Keeffe, and the American Radiator Building

Designed by Raymond Hood, the American Radiator Building of 1924 fit the bill of the clients - it was massive, solid, and it would glow at night. While Hood wanted the building to look like a cathedral, he knew that the many window openings would overly lighten the heaviness. He solved the problem by making the facade black. He didn't want lights turned on in the building after dark but directed the upper floors to be illuminated with floodlights.

O'Keeffe not only painted the Radiator Building at night but with all the windows illuminated. The painting is one of several O'Keeffe made in the mid 1920s in response to the changing New York skyline. At the time she and Alfred Stieglitz lived on the thirtieth floor of the Shelton Hotel at 49th and Lexington, and O'Keeffe frequently walked near the new building.

Her painting of the Radiator from 1927 (the same year as Fritz Lang's Metropolis, tellingly) is remarkable for its color and for the depiction of the artificial light of the city night - the purple and blue tints of floodlights and the fluorescent whites of the office towers. There's a touch of warm incandescent light in windows here and there. The stylized smoky steam arising from the building at the right echoes the flipped curved cornices of the Radiator's top floors. It's pure theater.

After Stieglitz died in 1946, his personal art collection of some 1,000 works was divided up among six museums. One benefactor was Fisk University in Nashville, a university Carl Van Vechten suggested to O'Keeffe. Among the artworks in the bequest was O'Keeffe's painting, Radiator Building–Night, New York. For a couple of years, the cash-strapped university has tried to sell the painting, then valued around $20 million, and at one point worked out a co-ownership deal with a new Walton-backed museum in Arkansas. The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico attempted to legally block the agreement, and the matter went to court. The matter has been tied up in courts for the past four years.

Images: (l) photo by Walking Off the Big Apple, January 2008. and Georgia O'Keeffe. Radiator Building–Night, New York. 1927.

VI. Georgia O'Keeffe's Long Road Home

When Mabel Dodge invited Georgia O'Keeffe to spend the summer with her in Taos in 1929, O'Keeffe accepted the invitation without first consulting her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, a dominating spouse. She spent the summer there without him anyway, awakening to the possibility she had found a new place that seemed like home.
"She wrote to Henry McBride from Taos in 1929, 'You know I never feel at home in the East like I do out here-and finally feeling in the right place again-I feel like myself-and I like it- . . . Out the very large window to rich green alfalfa fields-then the sage brush and beyond-a most perfect mountain-it makes me feel like flying-and I don't care what becomes of art.' - Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters by Jack Cowart and Juan Hamilton (New York Graphic Society, 1990)

Stieglitz was an aging New Yorker, embedded in the cultural life of the city, and far-away New Mexico was a place best left to his wife. In February of 1930 he exhibited her New Mexico-inspired paintings at An American Place at 509 Madison Avenue, his third and final gallery in New York. The gallery presented O'Keeffe's New Mexico paintings every year until the gallery's closing in 1950.

Any artist would have relished O'Keeffe's life - time alone in New Mexico to paint a serious body of work as well as a successful artist-gallerist spouse back in New York to exhibit them on Madison Avenue every year. In addition, the two often enjoyed time at the expansive Stieglitz estate up on Lake George. But...

Enter Radio City Music Hall (1260 Avenue of the Americas). In the spring of 1932 O'Keeffe accepted a $1500 commission to paint a mural on the walls of the Ladies Powder Room. Wanting to paint something big, she accepted the challenge over her husband's objections. By October, after spending the summer in Canada, she grew frustrated with some technical difficulties with the mural and abandoned the project. In early 1933 she became ill and was admitted to Doctor's Hospital for psychoneurosis, a condition often brought on by acute stress.

Meanwhile, Stieglitz, who was 23 years older than O'Keeffe, had started a relationship with a young married woman, Dorothy Norman, his gallery manager, an artist, arts patron and a proponent of the photographic arts. He started taking photos of her, the same sort of sensational erotic images he made of O'Keeffe early in their marriage. The two spent a lot of time in the darkroom together. All this while his wife is sick. O'Keeffe knew what was going on.

O'Keeffe returned to New Mexico in the summer of 1934, first staying at Ghost Ranch seventy miles west of Taos, and until Stieglitz's death she returned there most every summer. In 1936 she and Stieglitz moved from the Shelton Hotel to a penthouse apartment at 405 East 54th St., a place nearer Stieglitz's gallery. In 1942 they moved to a small apartment at 59 East 54th St., even closer. During the summer of 1945 she bought an adobe house on three acres in Abiquiu. In 1946, Stieglitz, after a massive stroke, died in New York at the age of 82.

After spending a couple of years in New York, consumed with settling the Stieglitz estate, O'Keeffe permanently moved to New Mexico in 1949, dividing her time between Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. She had spent thirty years going back and forth from her home in the west to an apartment in midtown Manhattan, and she didn't have to do that anymore. She died March 6, 1986 in Santa Fe at the age of 98.

Image: interior, New York Marriott Hotel East Side (formerly the Shelton Hotel), 525 Lexington Avenue at 49th St.

Map of places mentioned in this post -

VII. Coda

Years ago, in the plaza of Taos, New Mexico, my mother and I struck up a conversation with a guy who ran a sandwich stand. He told us he was a New Yorker, a former business executive who decided on a whim one day to move out west. While stuck in traffic for hours on the Long Island Expressway, he decided to go home, collect the wife and children, and leave New York for good. He said he never regretted the decision, and he was happy selling sandwiches on the Taos plaza.

New York can be beautiful, but not in the same way that New Mexico can be beautiful. I think New Mexico will continue to hypnotize those of us who live back east. When I grow weary of the city, I sit on my terrace and look west. I imagine the Sangre de Christo Mountains in the setting red-orange sun and cow's skulls with white calico roses descending over the azure sky. I think then, "What Ghost Ranch waits for me?"


Anton Deque said...

Wonderful post Teri. Congratulations and thank you.

Teri Tynes said...

Thanks, Anton. I appreciate it.