Sunday, August 4, 2013

Georgia O’Keeffe & the Southwest

A year or two ago we were invited to lunch by a trustee of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and their Director of Development to discuss the possibility of our contributing to an exhibition that was in the works.  We were shown the prospectus for the show and on the basis of that we turned them down.  The curator at the time was trying to make the case that Georgia O’Keeffe was greatly influenced by her collection of Katsina dolls or tihu, the carved and painted figurines which teach the Hopi and Zuni children about their religion. The problem was that she did not have a serious collection.  She did own a few, however, and did some small drawings and oils of these and ones that belonged to friends, but they were not an important part of her life.

The exhibition starts with what is actually a snapshot, a wallet size photo of O’Keeffe in Canyon, Texas taken between 1916 and 1918 by an anonymous photographer.  It is a far cry from the photos which Stieglitz took of her starting in 1918.  She looks kind of ordinary and not at all the striking sensual woman we have come to recognize as Georgia O’Keeffe.  Then we see one of these photos by Stieglitz, it is of O’Keeffe’s hands in front of one of her abstract paintings, exhibited next to the photo.  At first glance it  seems as if she has balls between her fingers.

"Georgia O'Keeffe's Hands" by Alfred Stieglitz

The museum has instituted a new policy that allows photography of works of art in an exhibition as long as there is no symbol (a camera with a line through it) under the label.  Therefore, the illustrations are mine unless otherwise noted.  Reasons for not allowing photography are either that the lender refused to give the museum permission or that the museum does not own the copyright.  In the case of the O’Keeffes and Stieglitz’s in the museum collection they came with rights.  The Ansel Adams estate, however, has not given rights of reproduction.

In the gallery, which is usually devoted to photography are a number of images that Stieglitz and others have taken of O’Keeffe in her natural habitat.  Most are of the artist in New Mexico in the landscape near and around her home and studio.  Last year we had a tour of her place in Abiquiu given by her long time assistant, Pepita Lopez.  She was so close to Miss O’Keeffe, as she called her and gave us such an intimate tour that looking at a photo I suddenly thought was it Pepita or Georgia herself who showed us her studio?


Between 1918 and his death in 1946 Stieglitz took some 300 photographs of his wife and muse.  For some of these go to Google type in Stieglitz photos O’Keeffe and then click on Images.  One of the things that I like that the museum always does is use quotes by the artist which shows she is one of the few artists who was very articulate and a great self promoter.  In this room she is quoted as saying in 1922, “Photography is able to flatter or embarrass the human’s ego by registering the fleeting expression of a moment” and Stieglitz was a master in this regard.

There is no question that the land and sky in the Southwest have a great influence on all who come to it.  Also, religion is so important in our tri-partied Hispanic, Native, Anglo world that it naturally had a profound influence on O’Keeffe’s world view and how she interpreted it in her art.  One of the strongest religious symbols is, of course, the cross and it comes up in many of her paintings.  One wonderful example is Church Steeple of 1930.

Georgia O’Keeffe, 1983, “I saw the crosses so often-and often in unexpected places- like a thin dark veil of the Catholic Church spread over the New Mexico landscape”.

The southwest light is absolutely mesmerizing.  The skies are unlike any I have ever seen on the east or west coast of this country or in Europe.  This obviously made a great impression on O’Keeffe.  Her wispy clouds which look like pure fantasy are quite real just as the dark skies of the Dutch 17th century masters were very real in their part of the world.  One of the most dramatic O’Keeffe’s in the show is Easter Sunrise from 1953 which captures that landscape and a vision of the cross shining from over the edge of the mountain.

Georgia O’Keeffe, 1977, “When I got to New Mexico that was mine.  As soon as I saw it that was my country.  I‘d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly.  It’s something that’s in the air-- it’s different.  The sky is different, the wind is different.  I shouldn’t say too much about it because other people may be interested and I don’t want them Interested.”

Another kind of religious imagery for New Mexico’s Hispanic population is the bulto, a carved and painted wood figure that comes down from the tradition of Spanish Colonial sculpture.  One of the most important symbols is that of the Virgin Mary.   In the show we see the actual bulto of the Virgin from a private collection with a painting by O’Keeffe.  We did not have permission to photograph the painting but take my word for it the painting is a precise replica.

It is not a large leap from bultos to Katsina dolls.  A small gallery is devoted to O’Keeffe’s paintings and drawings of these carved figures.

The final gallery of the show has the work of two contemporary Hopi artists (paintings by Dan Namingha and tapestries by Ramona Sakiestewa). Their abstract images are inspired by Katsinam but you have to know to know in order to recognize the symbolism.

The exhibition in the end is not about O’Keeffe’s work with Katsinam but rather as the title now reads “Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture , Katsinam and the Land”.  The land has a great influence on anyone who lives here just like skyscrapers influence the view of the city dweller.  In fact when O’Keeffe lived in New York she painted the city canyons with the buildings looming above.

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