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Comparing Objects at the SFMOMA

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Black Place I (Georgia O’Keefe, 1944) and Symbolic Landscape (Diego Rivera, 1940) are both on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.  Both are landscapes in oil on canvas.  Both paintings are abstract, with relatively little real detail to indicate the actual landscape from which they were painted.

Black Place I is a dreamy depiction of a forbidding desert landscape.  It evokes sensuality and emphasizes the soft curves of the landscape.  However, its monochromatic color scheme in shades of gray is less feminine than some of O’Keefe’s other paintings. The undulating curves of the desert resemble pieces of silk fabric and fill the canvas.  Location is difficult to determine, as the landscape is featureless. Like Symbolic Landscape there is no greenery, but unlike it, there is also no horizon to help orient the viewer to scale.  The painting could be of large, mile-long dunes of sand, or tiny patterns a few inches wide.  However the painting does give an impression of vastness which implies that the scale is large.

In contrast, Symbolic Landscape is somewhat more specific in locale, though not much.  The landscape is similarly barren of vegetation, but not quite as featureless.  There are rocks, some twisted trees, a tiny sprig of brown growth and a view of the sky with a small full moon.  There are also a few tiny elements that indicate a human presence in the foreground, a brown glove and an unidentifiable item that resembles a weapon or tool.  The scale of this painting is much easier to determine, especially with the glove in the foreground and the moon in the background as points of orientation.  It is clearly a medium view of a twisted tree among rocks.

Both painting have an element of mystery, but for different reasons.  Black Place I is mysterious because it clearly indicates a landscape, but leaves little clue as to the viewer’s location.  Symbolic Landscape is mysterious because of the various elements included in the painting and their different levels of abstraction.  The twisted tree jutting from the lower right hand corner is quite abstract, though parts of it, like the torn bark at the base, are depicted with relative realism.  However the glove and unidentified human object in the lower left are quite realistic representations, but the meaning of these objects is left ambiguous.

The paintings are most similar in their renderings of the rocky or desert background.  The entirety of Black Place I and the rocky background of Symbolic Landscape both resemble fabric in places.  However, O’Keefe’s painting is soft and inviting whereas Rivera’s is forbidding and looks difficult to traverse.

Both painting abstract the landscape until there is a human sensuality to its form.  The undulating, soft curves of Black Place I are reminiscent of the female form.  The harsher, jutting intersections of Symbolic Landscape look, in places, like human bodies intertwined and reaching towards the sky.  Rivera’s painting has a lot of urgency, even for a relatively placid landscape – the tree reaches towards the sky.  O’Keefe’s landscape is more placid.

While neither painting is brightly colored, Rivera’s use of deep brown tones against the grays and blues of his background have a dramatic effect.  The foreground tree draws attention to itself, through its shape and relative brightness.  O’Keefe’s colors are subdued and consistent.  No one part or element of the painting asserts itself and overall the feel of the painting is balanced.  Symbolic Landscape is far more dramatic, and although the story it is telling is ambiguous, there is clearly a story indicated.

Symbolic Landscape does contain some ambiguous, soft, natural elements.  The tree-like entities in the upper right corner are very abstracted and soft.  They barely resemble trees, except for their color and a few branches on top.  These elements most resemble the O’Keefe painting.

The response to Black Place I is an emotional one.  The peaceful, gray, sensual landscape is soothing and beautiful. Responding to Symbolic Landscape is more complex.  The tree appears to be both writhing and reaching towards the distant and unreachable moon.  There is a mood of discontent in the painting and vaguely sexual overtones to the tree.  The objects in the lower left are mysterious – they indicate a human presence, or a metaphor, but their meaning is unclear.  Symbolic Landscape is an unsettling painting that leaves many questions.  Black Place I is more serene and complete.  It exists peacefully in its own abstract world.

In relation to each other, the two paintings are complimentary.  In the simplest terms, O’Keefe’s vision is peaceful, nature-oriented and female.  Diego’s vision is political, universally human and somewhat violent.  His abstraction of the elements emphasizes individuality, while O’Keefe smoothes over individual elements and offers a calm sameness.  Each painting asserts a view of the natural world, but Rivera’s is more human and rough.  O’Keefe’s painting is more timeless, less specific and encourages contemplation of the natural world for what it is, not for what it represents.

My personal response to each of the paintings is very different.  Black Place I makes me contemplative, but it does not leave me curious.  It honors the natural landscape, but does not comment on it, or make me think any particular way.  Symbolic Landscape is more invigorating.  It makes me curious about the details of where it was painted and leaves me wondering what the various elements are meant to signify.

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