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Georgia O'Keeffe, Radiator Building—Night, New York

Georgia O’Keeffe, Radiator Building—Night, New York, 1927, oil on canvas, 121.9 x 76.2 cm (The Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Fisk University, Nashville and Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville) © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum A conversation with Dr. Jen Padgett, Associate Curator, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and Dr. Steven Zucker. Created by Smarthistory.

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    Urban verticality, represented by the skyscraper (described here as the American contribution to international architecture) is now seen all over the world. Is this an advance over the horizontality of traditional urban architecture, punctuated by spires and towers, that used to prevail? What has been gained by "building upward", and what has been lost?
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Video transcript

(soft piano music) - [Dr. Zucker] We're in Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art looking at one of my favorite paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe. This is "Radiator Building-Night, New York." It's part of the Alfred Stieglitz collection co-owned by Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. This is such an exceptional expression of New York and modernity in the 1920s. - [Dr. Padgett] It comes from a group of over 20 paintings that O'Keeffe made between 1925 and 1930, in which she takes on the subject of the city. Inspired largely by her moving into the Shelton Hotel, living in a skyscraper herself, at first on the 28th floor, and then all the way to the 30th because she felt she wasn't high enough. When she described the experience of living in the Shelton, she said, "I had never lived so high up before and was so excited that I began talking about trying to paint New York." Of course, it was an impossible idea. Even the men hadn't done too well with it. - [Dr. Zucker] The Sheldon was a residential hotel, like an apartment building, but it had all the amenities of a hotel. - [Dr. Padgett] Living in the Shelton and having that experience of the verticality of a city had such an impact on O'Keeffe. And in this painting, the building stretches through the center of the canvas, which is quite elongated and the viewer's position is floating in space. - [Dr. Zucker] O'Keeffe cropped the street out, and it reminds me of partial views that you get of structures in New York, hidden behind, maybe lower buildings, maybe buildings just below our line of sight. But we should be cautious. We don't want to take this rendering too literally. O'Keeffe has simplified the structure. She's stripped off much of its lower ornament to create this almost perfect grid. - [Dr. Padgett] The Radiator Building is a striking building for many reasons, not least of all, because the cladding of the building is black. So even during the day, it would stand out in dramatic contrast to the surrounding buildings. - [Dr. Zucker] It was designed by Raymond Hood in fronts 40th Street, an area that saw tremendous growth in the 1920s. And in fact, the Shelton, the hotel that O'Keeffe and Stieglitz lived in was part of this new generation of skyscrapers. It was this really exciting moment. New York was the center of American economic power, and these buildings were one of the most tangible examples of that. - [Dr. Padgett] Curiously, you see the name Alfred Stieglitz in red neon. This would've originally been assigned for advertising in the Scientific American magazine, and instead, O'Keeffe has used Alfred Stieglitz' name, the name of her husband, the photographer, Gallarus collector, and overall advocate and promoter of modern art in the US. Stieglitzs' advocacy for modern art is something that O'Keeffe is playing with, putting his name in lights, both underscoring his connection with the city, but also playing a bit of fun. That sense of an advertisement for somebody who boasted quite often that his galleries did not advertise. - [Dr. Zucker] She frames the building on the left by the sign by Stieglitz which has a beautiful quality of neon, in the way that it's painted a little bit out of focus, as if we're looking through atmosphere at night, the sign is almost too bright for our eyes to focus on, and there is this quality of the way that neon can break the darkness of the night sky. And then on the right, we have the vapors and we have those search lights, those wonderful beams that create so much velocity in this painting. But I think that she does something even more clever. She creates a kind of rhythm through the selective illumination of windows that play across not only the building itself, but also the buildings adjacent. And furthered by the rhythmic play of floating streetlights that we see at the very bottom of the canvas. The building was designed to be illuminated at night. It was designed to advertise the American Radiator Corporation without signage, and in doing so, it becomes one of the crowning jewels of the New York skyline. I think for O'Keeffe, this and many of the other buildings in the area were the quintessential expression of modern life. - [Dr. Padgett] The idea that the skyscraper was a symbol of American modernity was widely discussed. The American architectural theorist, Claude Bragdon, wrote, "Not only is the skyscraper the symbol of the American spirit, restless, centrifugal, perilously posed, but it is the only true original development in the field of architecture to which we can lay unchallenged claim." - [Dr. Zucker] So there was a national aspect to the skyscraper, it was seen as an American invention. And in 1927, there was this idea that America was flexing its muscles as the new cultural center of the world. (soft piano music)