Birth of the ab­stract

Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe’s Far Wide Texas

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Michael Abatemarco The New Mex­i­can GE­OR­GIA O’KE­EFFE in Amar­illo

Palo Duro Canyon, the na­tion’s sec­ond-largest canyon, was the sub­ject of only five paint­ings Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe made dur­ing a short but sig­nif­i­cant chap­ter of her life. O’Ke­effe headed the art depart­ment at West Texas State Nor­mal Col­lege (now West Texas A&M Univer­sity) near Amar­illo from 1916 to 1918. Dur­ing those years she painted a hand­ful of views of the canyon in vi­brant, unusual color schemes dom­i­nated by a bold use of yel­lows, blues, and reds.

Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum cu­ra­tor Carolyn Kast­ner hoped to in­clude all five paint­ings in the mu­seum’s lat­est ex­hi­bi­tion Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe’s

Far Wide Texas, which fo­cuses on a dy­namic pe­riod when O’Ke­effe cre­ated a num­ber of ab­stract works in­spired by the Texas Pan­han­dle land­scape. Spe­cial #21: Palo Duro

Canyon, made circa 1916 and be­long­ing to the New Mex­ico Mu­seum of Art, was one of them. But in De­cem­ber 2003, Spe­cial #21 dis­ap­peared from a gallery wall in­side the NMMoA, and more than a decade later, the stolen work has not been re­cov­ered. “It was so gor­geous,” Kast­ner said of the paint­ing. “It was a bril­liant yel­low and bril­liant red, col­ors that don’t ap­pear in the land­scape there. It broke my heart. I had it on the check­list, and it was Dale Kronkright who said to me, ‘Sorry, some­body has that and they won’t tell us who.’ ” (Kast­ner, who joined the mu­seum staff af­ter the theft, wasn’t aware the paint­ing was still miss­ing.) Kronkright is the mu­seum’s head of con­ser­va­tion.

“So that one’s miss­ing, and there’s one that couldn’t travel,” Kast­ner said. “We have two of them in our col­lec­tion, and we’re bor­row­ing one other that’s com­ing from the Pan­han­dle-Plains His­tor­i­cal Mu­seum. They’re re­ally ec­static paint­ings. They’re not her best oil paint­ings, but they’re the most ex­cit­ing in some way be­cause of the col­ors.”

For the next five years, none of the mu­seum’s wa­ter­col­ors will be avail­able to loan to other venues be­cause they’re be­ing used for ex­hi­bi­tions at home. Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe’s Far Wide Texas is part of the mu­seum’s A Great Amer­i­can Artist. A Great Amer­i­can Story, an on­go­ing se­ries of ex­hi­bi­tions di­vided by themed gal­leries. Far Wide Texas is on the theme “Be­com­ing a Mod­ern Artist,” which high­lights O’Ke­effe’s devel­op­ing tech­niques in the first decade of her ca­reer. More than half of the wa­ter­col­ors she painted in Texas dur­ing the two years she lived there are on view, and the rest of the mu­seum’s wa­ter­col­ors are on ex­hibit in other shows. “We’re go­ing to run out the cal­en­dar on the whole col­lec­tion of our wa­ter­col­ors,” Kast­ner said. “That’s be­cause we so sel­dom put them to­gether. Since I’ve been here, al­most seven years now, they’ve never all been out at one time.”

One of the rea­sons the mu­seum is do­ing the wa­ter­color show now is be­cause most of its best oil paint­ings have been loaned out to the Tate Mod­ern in Lon­don for a ma­jor O’Ke­effe ex­hi­bi­tion that opens in June. “We’re the big­gest lender,” Kast­ner said. “They will have 100 works of art, maybe more. They’re work­ing very hard to have a clear rep­re­sen­ta­tion right through to the end of her life, so it will be a full ret­ro­spec­tive.”

Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe’s Far Wide Texas is ac­com­pa­nied by the up­com­ing cat­a­log Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe: Wa­ter­col­ors 1916-1918, pub­lished by Ra­dius Books. Many of the wa­ter­col­ors in the book are re­pro­duced at full size. “Most of them are about 9 by 12 inches or so, so the book is trimmed to ac­com­mo­date that size,” Kast­ner said. “There are a few that are big­ger, and they’ll have a gate­fold. The book is re­ally tac­tile for that rea­son. It’s ex­cit­ing to me, be­cause I wanted them to look as rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the work as I could, be­cause we show them so in­fre­quently. There’s no ed­i­to­rial page. There’s just art­work and ti­tles.” A pocket in the back of the book holds an es­say by Amy Von Lin­tel, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of art his­tory at West Texas A&M. Lin­tel dis­cusses her research for the book in “The Mak­ing of an Ex­hi­bi­tion Cat­a­logue” with Eu­mie Imm Stroukoff, the Emily Fisher Lan­dau Di­rec­tor of the mu­seum’s O’Ke­effe Research Cen­ter, on Mon­day, May 2. Lin­tel signs copies of the book fol­low­ing the dis­cus­sion.

The mu­seum is also show­ing a se­ries of nudes O’Ke­effe did while us­ing her­self as a model; she painted them us­ing un­ex­pected color choices sim­i­lar to those used in her land­scapes of the same pe­riod. In Nude Se­ries VIII, for in­stance, the fig­ure is blue, en­livened by touches of red on the torso. She also painted ab­stract portraits of friends, such as pho­tog­ra­pher Paul Strand, an ex­am­ple of which is also in the ex­hibit. “They aren’t in any way rep­re­sen­ta­tional,” Kast­ner said. “She gave all her portraits of Paul Strand to him, and all three were in his col­lec­tion at the end of his life. They both had a crush on each other, which was in­ter­rupted by Al­fred Stieglitz. She met Stieglitz in 1916 be­fore she came west to Texas. She had been go­ing to school at Columbia Univer­sity. By 1916, her friend [pho­tog­ra­pher] Anita Pol­litzer had in­tro­duced O’Ke­effe’s works to Stieglitz and the con­ver­sa­tion picks up in the letters. In 1917, he gives her an ex­hi­bi­tion.”

O’Ke­effe’s in­ter­est in ab­stract views of land­scapes and her draw­ing tech­niques were de­vel­oped while in Texas. She was com­mit­ted to teach­ing the meth­ods of Arthur Wes­ley Dow, whose the­o­ries she was in­tro­duced to in 1912 and which she would em­ploy in her own work, as well. “The ear­li­est draw­ings in the style of Arthur Wes­ley Dow start in 1916 and go to the end of her cre­ative life,” Kast­ner said. “We’ve got a great quote that’s go­ing to go up on the wall. She writes to Stieglitz and she says, ‘It seems sure now that I will stay in Texas un­less they fire me.’ So she’s to­tally com­mit­ted to teach­ing and mak­ing great use of this very unusual land­scape. West Texas State Nor­mal Col­lege was a teach­ing col­lege, so she’s teach­ing stu­dents who would be­come teach­ers.”

At the same time, O’Ke­effe, who was in her twen­ties, was pre­oc­cu­pied with nor­mal twenty-some­thing con­cerns, in­clud­ing so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties with friends and flirting with men. While she was work­ing on her paint­ings of the canyon she was ex­chang­ing ro­man­tic letters with Strand. “Her letters at this time are filled with her de­sire and her lack of de­sire be­cause men are ap­proach­ing her and she’s not so in­ter­ested. But she writes to Paul Strand and says, ‘I’m in­ter­ested in you.’ ”

This so­cial time is at­tested to by sur­viv­ing snapshots, some of which are on ex­hibit, of the pain­ter vis­it­ing the canyon with friends. “There are lots of snapshots from when she was in her twen­ties,” said Kast­ner. “She was part of a big group of peo­ple that gath­ered on sev­eral dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions in the canyon. We’ve been there twice to look into the canyon, and we think we know where they were when they took the pho­to­graphs.” Other than O’Ke­effe, the other peo­ple in the images have not been iden­ti­fied. “We had an in­tern last sum­mer try­ing to track down who th­ese peo­ple were, but we don’t have names.”

Texas was also the pe­riod of her bur­geon­ing re­la­tion­ship with Stieglitz. A copy of Goethe’s Faust, in­scribed to O’Ke­effe by the in­flu­en­tial pho­tog­ra­pher who be­came her hus­band, is in­cluded in the ex­hibit.

In Evening Star, an­other se­ries of land­scape-in­formed ab­strac­tions on view, she makes no at­tempt at re­al­ism, but in them one can see how re­duc­tive forms be­came a part of her prac­tice and how she used col­ors to cre­ate a sense of mood. The mu­seum is ex­hibit­ing five of the eight wa­ter­col­ors that make up the se­ries. “The wa­ter­col­ors came to us pri­mar­ily from her own col­lec­tion, and we’ve been gifted some from the es­tate’s col­lec­tion,” Kast­ner said. “When they came to us, Dale looked at them right away and ex­pected that they would show signs of fad­ing and found that the op­po­site is true. They’ve been shown very lit­tle.”

In con­text, O’Ke­effe’s early years are in­te­gral to an un­der­stand­ing of her devel­op­ing aes­thet­ics. While in her twen­ties, she had al­ready de­vel­oped the tech­niques, dis­ci­pline, and ideas that would be cen­tral to her long ca­reer. “If she’d never gone on, it wouldn’t be re­mark­able,” Kast­ner said. “But the fact that she’s so com­mit­ted to that art prac­tice for 60 years re­ally tells the story. She had all the energy it took to keep be­ing cre­ative for such a long time.”

O’KE­EFFE’S IN­TER­EST IN AB­STRACT VIEWS OF LAND­SCAPES AND HER DRAW­ING TECH­NIQUES WERE DE­VEL­OPED WHILE IN TEXAS. SHE WAS COM­MIT­TED TO TEACH­ING THE METH­ODS OF ARTHUR WES­LEY DOW, WHOSE THE­O­RIES SHE WAS IN­TRO­DUCED TO IN 1912 AND WHICH SHE WOULD EM­PLOY IN HER OWN WORK, AS WELL.

Above, Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe: Nude Se­ries VIII, 1917, wa­ter­color on pa­per, Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum, Gift of The Bur­nett Foun­da­tion and The Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Foun­da­tion (1997.04.011) © Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum Right, Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe, circa 1912-1918, uniden­ti­fied pho­tog­ra­pher, Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum, Gift of The Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Foun­da­tion (2006-06-0721) Op­po­site page, top left, O’Ke­effe: Evening Star No. VI, 1917, wa­ter­color on pa­per, Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum, Gift of The Bur­nett Foun­da­tion (1997.18.003) © Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum Top right, Sun­rise and Lit­tle Clouds No. II, 1916, wa­ter­color on pa­per, Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum, Gift of The Bur­nett Foun­da­tion (1997.18.001) © Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum Bot­tom, No. 22 - Spe­cial, 1916-1917, oil on board, Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum (1997.05.16) © Ge­or­gia O’Ke­effe Mu­seum

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