Ambience as aphrodisiac: Georgia O'Keeffe at the IMA 

click to enlarge The opening of Georgia O'Keeffe and the Southwestern Still Life coincided with Day of the Dead festivities at the Indianapolis Museum of Art. - DAN GROSSMAN
  • The opening of Georgia O'Keeffe and the Southwestern Still Life coincided with Day of the Dead festivities at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
  • Dan Grossman

I was talking to a friend while walking into the Noyes Suite of American Art Galleries at the Indianapolis Museum of Art where paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe take up an entire wall — this was several weeks before the current exhibition “Georgia O’Keeffe and the Southwestern Still Life” opened— and she brought up the Freudian aspect of O’Keeffe’s work. I played the devil’s advocate and argued that O’Keeffe herself had always denied the gynecological comparisons that her flower paintings inevitably evoke—with their depictions of flower stamens, petals, and ovaries bathing in the sunlight. And my friend gave me this withering look; maybe she thought as an arts writer I should know better, or maybe she just thought that I had been born on another planet.

So on the opening night of the current exhibition last Saturday, when I was walking through the exhibition with the IMA's guest curator of American Art Harriet Warkel, I brought up the same thing with her. We were standing in front of O’Keefe’s painting “Jimson Weed,” with its enormously magnified images of flowers, composed in 1936, part of the IMA’s permanent collection. “Maybe,” I started to say, “it would be better if we looked at her paintings holistically, because sex, after all is just part of life….”

She would have none of this.

“But this is deliberate,” said Warkel. “Before any of this was shown Arthur Steiglitz took nude photographs of her [from 1918 to 1925] and then he showed them in his gallery. Remember, nobody’s seen any work by her. His idea was, once they see these nude photographs, they’re going to remember your name. And then when she did the flower painting, the critics not only remembered her name they remembered her body and they actually felt that because she was so sexual she was putting that in her flowers.”

This New York-based photographer—24 years older than O’Keeffe—married her in 1924.

Of course, as Warkel took pains to remind me, the flower paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe are only a small aspect of the “Georgia O’Keeffe and the Southwestern Still Life” exhibition, organized by the museum services company International Arts® and originally curated by Charles Eldredge that includes 67 works, only 24 of them by O’Keeffe. The exhibition is divided by subject, among them “Architecture as Still Life,” “Cultural Artifacts” “Flowers,” and “Bones.”

And then the styles of the exhibited artists range from the more traditional—such as Pedro Lopez Cervantes’s “Still Life with Violin” (1934) set against the backdrop of a lush New Mexico grassland—to Paul Burlin’s “Untitled: Still Life with Guitar,” (1918) which, with its disjointed geometries and sepia tones, resembles cubist work by Pablo Picasso. These two paintings hang in close proximity to each other to give the visitor a sense of the varied still life painting that was going on in the region of Northern New Mexico in the early years of the Twentieth Century.

Incorporating such juxtapositions as mentioned above, as well as a beautiful slideshow depicting Southwestern landscapes, the exhibit does a fine job in creating context as well as ambiance for the O’Keeffe paintings and those of her contemporaries. As this exhibit makes abundantly clear, O’Keeffe, who began painting in the Southwest in 1929 and moved there permanently in 1949, was not the first, or the only artist to become enchanted by New Mexico’s varied cultures and its magnificent landscapes. (They don’t call New Mexico the Land of Enchantment for nothing.)

And it was a little strange, but not all that out of step with the Southwestern vibe of the exhibition, to see skeletons and zombies walking through the galleries. That is, patrons were checking out the exhibit with their faces painted like skeletons and zombies, courtesy of the face-painting going on in the Pulliam Family Great Hall as part of the Day of the Dead celebration. And observing this day of remembrance — a public holiday in Mexico — was concurrent with the exhibition opening. Because New Mexico, after all, had once been part of old Mexico and one will find the same cultural traditions and artifacts on both sides of the border.

It was the “Cultural Artifacts” part of the exhibition that was, however, slightly problematic for me. Consider Joseph Henry Sharp’s “Crow Papoose and Pueblo Rain Gods,” which depicted two entirely different sets of artifacts by two entirely different Indian tribes. One of the Pueblo Rain God sculptures depicted is decapitated, which according to Warkel, expresses the painter’s concern that Indian tribes were being overrun by American culture, and who depicted artifacts from places where he had spent time in the American West: Montana and New Mexico.

But what this painting most reminded me of was the 1950s motion picture The Searchers, starring John Wayne, where plains Indians with feather headdresses are filmed riding their horses through Arizona’s Monument valley—a jarring bit of cultural ignorance. From a post-colonial type of perspective, perhaps, Sharp’s concern might seem as disconcerting as director John Ford’s lack of verisimilitude (not to mention his use of white actors to play Indian roles). After all, wasn’t Sharp one of the hoard of mostly white artists (including O'Keeffe) invading what had once been territory occupied mostly by Hispanic farmers and Pueblo tribespeople? What to make of his pieties considering this?

Unlike Sharp, O’Keeffe didn’t often make cultural artifacts her subject, according to Warkel. One of the few that she did paint was “The Wooden Virgin,” a santos (saint) icon commonly found on altars in Hispanic households in the Southwest.

“She painted that because it was one of the santoses that Mabel Dodge Luhan had in her house,” Warkel told me as we continued our walk through the exhibition space. “And she just happened to see it.”

Mabel Dodge Luhan, a patron of the arts and a nationally syndicated columnist for the Hearst Newspapers, had started a literary colony in the pueblo of Taos, New Mexico in 1919 and had hosted along with her husband Tony Luhan hosted many prominent artists and writers including the painter Marsden Hartley (a painter featured in this exhibition), the novelist Willa Cather, and Robinson Jeffers - a poet whose work I am familiar with.

That is to say, I read Jeffers voraciously in college. But I also listened to the Indigo Girls, I'm ashamed to say. And from both, I've since moved on.

"Robinson Jeffers had had an affair with Mabel Dodge Luhan when he visited the region with his wife in the early 1930s," I told Warkel.

“Who didn’t she have an affair with?” she replied. “She was upset that her husband looked at other women while she just slept with other men.”

Jeffers had his own peculiarly jaundiced take on the scene at Taos, a scene that was attracting more than its share of tourists, and he wrote about in his 1932 poem, “New Mexican Mountain.”

A stanza from the poem reads, “People from cities, anxious to be human again. Poor show how/they suck you empty! The Indians suck you empty! The Indians are emptied,/And certainly there was never religion enough nor beauty nor/poetry here…to fill Americans.”

But I’m not a fan of this particular Jeffers screed, which I consider to be one of his more self-flagellant poems.

At any rate, there was certainly enough poetry, as it were, in this particular exhibition to satisfy me. There was, to take just one example, Modernist luminary Stuart Davis’s oil painting from 1923 entitled “Still Life with Map,” a visual pun on the phrase “I saw New Mexico,” including a visual depiction of a saw. (He didn’t like New Mexico all that much according to Warkel: he came, he saw, and he left). And then there was “Garden of Eden,” a warmly colorful abstract work from 1937 by Dorothy Moran and I couldn’t help wondering if this work proposed that the realm of Adam and Eve was as much a feeling as a place.

And then there were O'Keefe's bone paintings, as surreal as anything by Salvador Dali.

In “From the Faraway Nearby,” (1938) by O'Keeffe, the deer's antlers in the foreground cover the whole of the painting against the backdrop of a mountainous New Mexico landscape. And then there’s the spectacular “Pelvis with the Distance,” - with its patch of blue seen through a socket of a pelvis towering to the sky - which the IMA is fortunate enough to have as a part of its permanent collection.

To me the bone paintings, infused with O’Keeffe’s love of New Mexico, have always been her most stunning work. And Northern New Mexico with its sublime landscapes and its mix of culture certainly was an artistic aphrodisiac to O’Keeffe and her contemporaries—whether modernist or traditionalist in style. (The modernists tended to locate themselves in Santa Fe, according to Warkel, while the traditionalists preferred Taos).

And this love affair comes across quite well in the exhibition. Not a bad place at all to bring a lover - or a friend - to spend an afternoon looking at art.

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