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Georgia O’Keeffe: How Did She Do It?

O’Keeffiana: Art and Art Materials September 24, 2010 – May 08, 2011

Georgia O’Keeffe Museum: 217 Johnson Street Santa Fe, NM (505)946-1000

One of the most intriguing things about any artist’s oeuvre is the question of how it was accomplished.  By the time work is hung in the hallowed halls of a museum, the creation of the work is subsumed in pure enjoyment of the artifact. From now until May 2011, however,the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum gives viewers the opportunity to encounter the materials and process that led to the end product, as well as see the final fruition of the artist’s idea.

On the River 1965: Georgia O'Keeffe

As an artist myself, when someone asks me “How long did it take you to make that?” I always answer, “All of my life!” The new exhibit at the O’Keeffe, entitled O’Keeffiana: Art and Art Materials provides ample evidence for this same truism. Throughout the museum, one can see the repetition of lines and forms that obviously held O’Keeffe’s intensely pointed interest throughout her very long time on the planet. From bones to buildings, tents to trees, her fascination for and love of nature and natural forms is on display throughout the galleries. With sketches mounted next to finished paintings, one can see just how specific and well considered her compositions and intentions were. She appears to have spent long hours studying from many angles the objects that intrigued her and then reducing them to a deceptively simple and beautifully refined abstraction. Once her conception of the essential form developed, she remained constant to this distillation of form, coming back repeatedly to the things she apparently loved the best. Returning over and over to an idea, she had the clarity of purpose and the will to perfect it to what she considered its visual ideal. And although each finished work is unique, the thread of her devotion to certain shapes and colors is demonstrated throughout this satisfying and thoughtfully curated exhibit.

Horse's Skull: Photo by Malcolm Varon 2001

Horse's Skull White Rose 1931: Georgia O'Keeffe

In addition to a whole raft of works I have not seen in the museum before (where DOES this embarrassment of riches originate?), the exhibit also includes some of the actual objects that O’Keeffe loved, the stones and bones, many in arrangements as she left them. To see them is to have a tiny window into a walk she may have taken on the Pedernal, or a dry riverbed on which she trod; to see them is to see the natural glory of northern New Mexico that brought and then kept Georgia O’Keeffe in the horizontal river valley of Abiquiu rather the the vertical heights of New York, where most “famous” artists ply their trade.

The art materials are also a revelation, with hand-tailored brushes and chunky hand-made pastels, along with a whole box of white flake oil paint that she bought when she knew it would be phased out because of the lead content. Her patient attention to developing just the colors and mood she wanted is evidenced in personal paint swatches with their exact compositions of elements detailed carefully on the back, so that she could use her chosen hues again. This thoughtful display of art materials provides a glimpse into the discipline and dedication that fostered such a long and satisfying career.

O'Keeffe's Painting Materials: Photo by Malcolm Varon 2001

A series of photographs, many by photographers whose names also resonate, show both the playful side of O’Keeffe as well as the perseverance of an artist who would paint while ensconced inside of a car if the weather interfered with a scene before she gathered what she needed from it. From youth to old age, this was an artist who knew what she wanted and went after it with tenacity and determination!

Georgia O'Keeffe after Return from New Mexico, 1929: Alfred Stieglitz

I benefitted from a docent tour of this exhibit and would recommend it, as it helped to flesh out the progression of this significant artist, her work and her career. Without a docent, I would never have known, for example, that at almost 90,  O’Keeffe painted her last large canvas while strapped into a chair mounted on a scaffold!  Docent orientations take place at 10:30 am on the days the museum is open, and a state-of-the-art audio tour is available. The museum is open Saturday through Thursday from 10am to 5pm and Friday from 10am to 8pm; admission is free from 5-8pm on the first Friday of each month. In keeping with the museum’s mission to expand appreciation of the arts, there is an ongoing series of public programs that provides artistic insights and educational opportunities throughout the year.

Just as Georgia O’Keeffe was a unique jewel among American artists, so is the O’Keeffe museum a real gem in the heart of Santa Fe, and we are so lucky and grateful to have it in our midst!

All images courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; all rights are reserved.

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