Georgia O'Keeffe and still-life art of New Mexico
Between June 27 and Sept. 13, the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center is hosting “Eloquent Objects: Georgia O’Keeffe and Still-Life Art in New Mexico.” The FAC is one of only four museums in the country to host the exhibit, which contains some of O’Keeffe’s best work from the height of her career, including examples of her flower paintings, bone still-lifes and paintings of the Ghost Ranch.
FAC Director Blake Milteer says this is the type of exhibit that people will be back to see again and again, something that is regionally important and 100 percent relevant to the people of Southern Colorado.
The exhibit opens with what Milteer considers the best piece in the show, O’Keeffe’s “Gerald’s Tree II.” This painting helps set the tone for the exhibit because, while many would consider “Gerald’s Tree II” to be a landscape, O’Keeffe, like many artists of her generation, questioned the boundaries and traditional definitions of art. Here, she approaches the gnarled, twisting branches of a dead tree not as a landscape but as an artifact, a symbol of the exoticism and mystique of New Mexico and the Desert Southwest.
The section to the immediate right of “Gerald’s Tree II” is arranged thematically around bones, the first new subject O’Keeffe was inspired to paint upon her arrival in New Mexico. “Deer Horns,” a vertical still-life with a deep blue background, is a particularly good example of how O’Keeffe’s paintings can be at once beautiful and unsettling. Stripped horns should be lying down, tranquil and nonthreatening, not standing up and bristling with intensity. O’Keeffe once said, “To me (bones) are strangely more living than the animals walking around,” and, “Sun-bleached bones (are) most wonderful against the blue – that blue that will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished.” Perhaps that’s why these still-lifes sometimes come across as extremely spiritual, maybe even uncanny–death is transient while the color of the sky is permanent, a “forever blue.”
On the opposite side of the divider is another stand-out piece in “Eloquent Objects,” “Back Patio Door,” which shows O’Keeffe at her most abstract and enigmatic. Upon first glance, this painting may seem flat and simplistic, but it is only after studying the piece that one catches the variations in color, suggesting curves or shadows, pathways or a horizon line.
Yet things remain mysterious, exemplifying what Milteer calls modern artists’ preference for interacting with viewers via questions rather than answers. Does the door lead inside or outside? Is it a door or is it a window? The line of the adobe wall and sky extend beyond the canvas onto the frame, obscuring even the sense of when the painting begins and where it ends. “Back Patio Door” is an extraordinarily liminal and spiritual work, playing with a sense of transition–not just from the patio and beyond, but from this world to the next.
Speaking of transitions, the second room in “Eloquent Objects” is partially themed around flowers, and of course this section wouldn’t be complete without an example of O’Keeffe’s famous flower paintings. Like “Back Patio Door,” “Yellow Cactus” deserves a closer look, not that you’ll be able to keep your eyes off it. From a distance, it appears decadently soft and delicately rendered. But step near enough to truly study the piece and you’ll catch the razor-sharp, precise lines that define the flower’s petals, as well as the aggressive daubs of paint demarcating the stamen. There’s real power and control in the execution of this work, and you can practically feel O’Keeffe’s passion and energy as it was poured into canvas.
“Eloquent Objects” does an excellent job of placing “Yellow Cactus” in the context of art history and the tradition of flower painting, which started with Dutch painters as a sort of memento mori, a reminder of the transience of life. Other artists of O’Keeffe’s generation played with and built upon this tradition–Joseph Henry Sharp’s “A Million Aspen Leaves,” for example, shows the leaves as not green but golden, dying rather than living despite the moniker “still-life.”
What made O’Keeffe’s work so unique was that she didn’t just paint the objects, she painted their essence, and in a way that conveyed the essence of herself and her experience. “It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things,” she once said. “I know I cannot paint a flower. I can not paint the sun on the desert on a bright summer morning but maybe in terms of paint color I can convey to you my experience of the flower or the experience that makes the flower of significance to me at that particular time.”
O’Keeffe is not the only artist in this exhibit–there are a total of 26 painters represented, covering two generations of New Mexico artists and the gradual shift from naturalistic painting styles, such as that of Sharp, to modern abstraction like that of Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson. Two of the artists–Andrew Dasburg and Ward Lockwood–also worked in Southern Colorado, and you can see murals by Dasburg in the FAC’s restaurant, Taste.
“Eloquent Objects” is an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime collection of art that tells the story not just of O’Keeffe, but of early twentieth century art in America and the west’s pivotal role in its development. The FAC’s permanent collection–from Navajo rugs to Taos Ten paintings and an early Picasso–extends that story and makes it clear that the art of our region is part of a larger narrative. None of these artists were natives of New Mexico, but they, like O’Keeffe, all found inspiration in the objects and landscape of America’s “Land of Enchantment.” But perhaps, as with all art, it can be said that the sense of enchantment lies more in the viewer than in the object.