Abstract works transform O’Keeffe Museum
Missing are the iconic paintings of flowers, bones and colorful landscapes that have made the American modernist from Wisconsin famous the world over. In their place are streaks of yellow and red, brilliant pastel swirls, blocks of contrasting color and stark charcoal lines slicing across nearly bare sheets of paper.
Cast aside any doubts, though. The museum hasn’t been taken over by another artist.
These are in fact O’Keeffes.
The museum is showcasing a special collection of more than 100 drawings, paintings and sculptures as part of Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction. Organized along with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and The Phillips Collection in Washington, the exhibition’s stop in Santa Fe is its only presentation in the western United States.
“A part of her work has been relatively unknown for so long, so it’s been exciting to bring this exhibition into being,” said museum curator Barbara Buhler Lynes. “It’s just such a tribute to her, and I think it reveals the consistency of her language of abstraction, from the beginning of her career to the end.”
On opening weekend, more than 4,000 people turned out to see a mix of pieces on loan from private collectors and museums around the country.
Included are the charcoal drawings that got O’Keeffe noticed nearly a century ago, paintings that have never been exhibited and all six works in her Jack-in-the-Pulpit series, which ranges from a small image of a flower to large-scale abstract shapes that echo the flower’s most delicate parts.
“She’s really searching for the essence of her subject,” said docent DeeAnn Dixon, explaining that the series offers a study in how O’Keeffe approached abstraction.
The exhibition is separated into various galleries, each focusing on a different stage in O’Keeffe’s progression as an artist.
First are her charcoal drawings, followed by more than a dozen of her watercolors, which Dixon explains were “really inventive and experimental” when they were done around 1917.
No matter the medium or the time period, visitors can look from one gallery into the next and see a repetition of the swirls, v-shapes and central lines that fascinated O’Keeffe in both her abstracts and more representational works.
“That’s the beauty of an exhibition. You bring all of these things together and then you see relationships that you hadn’t seen before,” Lynes said.
The exhibition provides a glimpse at the evolution of O’Keeffe’s distinct style, from the blending of charcoal in her early drawings to watercolor experiments and the feathering of oil paints.
The last gallery brings O’Keeffe’s career full circle with three watercolor abstractions that were completed in the late 1970s after macular degeneration had taken a toll on her vision.
Since O’Keeffe could no longer work independently, an assistant would mix the paint for her and she would choose which brush she wanted to use by feeling bristles. When it was time to paint, the assistant would position O’Keeffe’s hand over the primed paper.
A lifetime of habit made the pieces possible.
“You know how athletes have muscle memory? She had this hand-eye coordination kind of memory,” Dixon said. “Clearly, she remembered in her mind how to generate these same shapes.”
Aside from dispelling popular belief that O’Keeffe was merely a flower painter, Lynes said she hopes the exhibition spurs new interest in O’Keeffe and inspires a new generation of artists.
“That’s important to all of us. We have to pass things on from generation to generation,” she said.
Only two weeks into the show, it looks like Lynes’ work is paying off.
Keith Kelso of Hereford, Texas, walked into the last gallery with his young children leading the way. His daughter skipped ahead, pointing at a giant painting O’Keeffe had done in 1963, Above the Clouds III. Her whisper became louder as she got closer to the floating white circles and soft blue horizon.
“Look. Look. That’s awesome,” she exclaimed.
Her excitement is shared by the museum staff, too. Everyone from docents to security guards is ready to talk about this relatively unknown collection of work.
“I’m excited because I’m getting to see a body of work that I may never get to see again in my life,” said museum registrar Judith Chiba Smith.
If You Go…
Georgia O’Keefe Museum: 217 Johnson St., Santa Fe; http://www.okeeffemuseum.org/ or 505-946-1000. Admission: $10. Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction runs May 28-Sept. 12. Museum summer hours through Sept. 11: Sunday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.
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