The DAM's Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico offers new entry points to an art superstar
In the 1970s, when she was in her nineties, Georgia O'Keeffe was rediscovered in a big way, as images of her paintings became ubiquitous in reproductions on posters, greeting cards and prints. This was the result of the confluence of three independent factors. First, there was new interest in looking back at the development of early modernism in America, and O'Keeffe was part of that story. Second, there was a craze for Southwestern-style decor, and O'Keeffe's renditions of bleached animal skulls and adobe buildings put her in that context. Finally, the rise of feminism and its impact on art history led many to search out forgotten women artists, and few had made a bigger contribution than O'Keeffe. Now, more than three decades later, O'Keeffe's place in the history of art is firmly entrenched, so a show devoted to her oeuvre, like the Denver Art Museum's Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land, is a guaranteed success.
The original show was put together by Barbara Buhler Lynes, the former director of New Mexico's Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, along with associate curator Carolyn Kastner. But Thomas Smith, the director of the DAM's Petrie Institute of Western American Art, and John Lukavic, associate curator in the Native Arts department, tweaked the traveling show by adding more paintings and some additional Hopi objects from the DAM's world-class American Indian collection.
Here's a quick recap of O'Keeffe's life. Born in Wisconsin in 1887, she went on to study at the Chicago Art Institute in 1905-06 and the Art Students League in New York in 1907-08. In 1914, she became aware of the work of Braque, Picasso and other European avant-garde artists through exhibits at 291, a pioneering gallery founded by photographer Alfred Stieglitz that promoted modernism in America. In 1915, O'Keeffe, then living in South Carolina, fully embraced abstraction, creating a series of radical drawings. She sent some of them to a friend in New York, who in turn showed them to Stieglitz in 1916. That year, Stieglitz included O'Keeffe's work in a group show, then gave her a solo in 1917. Incidentally, this is also the year that O'Keeffe first visited New Mexico, on a trip from Colorado to Texas.
The next part is either sordid or romantic, depending on your perspective. In 1918, O'Keeffe was in Texas teaching, and Stieglitz, impressed with her work — and some other qualities, apparently — facilitated her move to New York by supplying an apartment for her. A month after she arrived, Stieglitz, who was in his fifties, left his wife and moved in with his 31-year-old protégé. Just to add another level of frisson, Stieglitz took nude photos of his new girlfriend and even exhibited them. It would not be until 1924, when Stieglitz's divorce was final, that he was able to legally marry O'Keeffe.
As indicated by the title, the DAM exhibit focuses on O'Keeffe's work in New Mexico. In 1929, O'Keeffe began to make regular trips to the area, finally relocating there permanently in 1949, three years after Stieglitz died. She remained in New Mexico until she died, at the age of 98, in 1986.
To put a fine point on it, O'Keeffe's time in New Mexico is marked by works long overshadowed by the groundbreaking things she did before she got there, like those super-famous giant flowers. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that these later pieces were rarely exhibited during her lifetime. So a lot of the material in the exhibit will be new to everyone other than O'Keeffe scholars or fans of New Mexico modernism.
Landscapes dominate the show, and several galleries are devoted to them. Some, like 1931's "Back of Marie's No. 4," are fairly representational, while others, such as "Black Place III," from 1944, are quite abstract. New Mexico changed O'Keeffe's sensibility, and I think it's undeniable that the landscapes she did there bear more than a casual relationship to the work of others in that area, like B.J.O. Nordfeldt or Victor Higgins. She thus became part of the scene, even if she's generally viewed as being separate because she was already a famous New York artist when she got there.
Following the landscapes, there's a small selection of O'Keeffe's works based on architecture, notably five pieces from 1929 depicting the back of the famous Ranchos Church, a favorite subject of many artists, including her close friend, photographer Paul Strand. O'Keeffe uses the soft geometry of the adobe structure to create a simplified variant of cubism.
The show reaches its crescendo in a section devoted to O'Keeffe's renderings of Katsinam, which are Hopi spirit gods, with actual katsina — often called kachina dolls — on display. This is where co-curator Lukavic comes in. In a piece such as "Blue-Headed Indian Doll," he explains, O'Keeffe wasn't interested in the religious aspect of the Hopi deity, but in its beauty. In the excellent catalogue, there's a discussion about how problematic this is; it turns out that there's a rancorous debate among the Hopis about who can and who can't make, sell, or even display representations of the Katsinam. So the decision was made that the actual katsina figures depicted in the paintings will not be included when the show is unveiled at the O'Keeffe Museum.
These depictions by O'Keeffe are charming, though she attempted to accurately portray their specific iconography. In a fascinating essay in the catalogue, W. Jackson Rushing III also links O'Keeffe's interest in the Katsinam with that of other artists who were interested in the subject at roughly the same time, in particular Gustave Baumann and Emil Bisttram. And Rushing goes one step further by connecting all of them back to Hopi artists, especially Fred Kabotie, who did it first, and, by extension, to the wood carvers who created the katsina tithu originally, like the unknown nineteenth-century artist who did the stunning "Kookopölö Katsina." It's a radical idea, but Rushing proves it.
I'd never really looked at what I thought were called kachina dolls as being works of art as opposed to religious artifacts. But when I closely examined the expressive carving, the bold painting, the abstraction of the human figure (the face, in particular) it was easy to see their relationship, and that of the Hopi dancers who dress as the Katsinam, to the development of early-twentieth-century modernism in New Mexico — in this case, to the work of O'Keeffe.
The show concludes with contemporary Native American artists using the Katsinam as inspiration and includes paintings by Dan Namingha and two gorgeous weavings by Ramona Sakiestewa. There's also a cruel depiction of O'Keeffe by David Bradley, "O'Keeffe as Whistler's Mother," that shows the artist as simply cashing in on New Mexico.
As readers of this column know, I have a keen interest in the way modernism manifested itself in the West, and Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico is a perfect example of one way in which that happened.
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