I learned to love Georgia O’Keeffe at the Denver Art Museum. Before I get into that, though, let’s backtrack a few years. My introduction with O’Keeffe started while I was in college at the University of Minnesota. A few of her works are on display at the Weisman Art Museum, which is free to the public. While a student, I stopped into the museum a few times and grew to assume, based on her works which are on display there, that all she was about was cow skulls and flower close-ups.
Boy, was I wrong.
This past week I had the opportunity to preview Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land Tour, which opened yesterday. And what I saw surprised me. I had no idea of O’Keeffe’s range and abilities, which truly is impressive. She is “the most revolutionary, and the most prolific female painter of the first part of the 20th Century here in the United States,” said the director of the Denver Art Museum, Christoph Heinrich, before the tour of the exhibition began.
There are a few of her skull and flower paintings, but not many. And they certainly are not the focus of the exhibit. I felt that they were more there to acknowledge she painted such pieces. Instead, the exhibition largely centered on three different areas of her work, the first being landscapes.
The second area of concentration in the exhibition was on architecture. They are the adobe structures and other buildings that occupied O’Keeffe’s everyday life attracted her attention, as well as her brush. “When O’Keeffe comes to New Mexico [from New York], she remains interested in architecture, but this is a very different kind of architecture,” explains Thomas Smith, Director of the Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum. “It is not about steel or glass or the industrial power, but rather architecture that has come from the earth. It is architecture of mud, of dirt and earth.” While the pieces were interesting, beautiful paintings, they were no match for my attention to the final area of focus.
As I wandered through the exhibition I was continually pulled back to the room filled with Katsinim, small painted figurines incorporated in Pueblo religious practices. I was transfixed by O’Keeffe’s paintings of these small Hopi Indian figurines. When O’Keeffe arrived in New Mexico, she “saw a living, vibrant culture that was full of color, that was full of line and form and texture that she drew as inspiration,” said the Denver Art Museum’s Associate Curator of Native Arts, John Lukavic. “And unlike some other subjects, such as the architecture, this is a subject that she explored not just when she first got to New Mexico, but she continued to paint these into the forties. She had a very personal relationship with some of the carved figures, which she owned herself.”
A few other works by contemporary Hopi Indian artists round out the exhibition. On their own, I would be attracted to these pieces. They stand alone well. But they are given so much more power when placed amongst Georgia O’Keeffe’s work. Of particular note, at least the favorite of mine, was David Bradley’s O’Keeffe, After Whistler.
As Christoph Heinrich said in the beginning, O’Keeffe is one of the most prolific female artists of her time. And he’s right, Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land Tour really is a special display that shouldn’t be missed. The opportunity to see so many great pieces of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work is included in general admission at the Denver Art Museum now through April 28th.