Behind the Scenes: O’Keeffe exhibit details making art by showcasing her materials, sketches

By Susan Montoya Bryan, AP
Sunday, September 19, 2010

New exhibit peels back layers of O’Keeffe

SANTA FE, N.M. — Beneath layers of paint, wrapped in bundles of brushes, hidden in sketch books and packed away among boxes of paints and pencils are clues that shed light on how Georgia O’Keeffe went about creating her colorful landscapes and iconic flower paintings.

Like forensic investigators, curators at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe have spent months combing through their collection and now they’re ready to share the many bits of evidence they have collected as part of the exhibition “O’Keeffiana: Art and Art Materials,” which opens Friday and runs through next May.

The collection of O’Keeffe’s never-before-displayed art materials, preparatory drawings, Polaroids and a pair of unfinished paintings is designed to give visitors a better understanding of how the late American modernist transferred her ideas about the world around her onto canvas.

“We have a kaleidoscope of material — from the art to the materials she used to make it and the houses that she lived in — and it’s the first time we’ve been able to draw on them to clarify in people’s minds what her objectives were as a painter and how she used materials to create things,” said museum curator Barbara Buhler Lynes.

The O’Keeffe Museum has a wealth of materials from the artist’s estate. At the time of her death in 1986, O’Keeffe’s two homes in northern New Mexico and most everything in them were set aside for preservation. That included her brushes, paint chips with notes jotted on the back, sketch books, canvases and hundreds of rocks and bleached animal bones she gathered over decades of exploring the high desert.

It was the job of associate curator Carolyn Kastner to search the museum’s climate-controlled vaults for clues that would help explain the foundation of O’Keeffe’s very deliberate style.

“I opened all the closets and pulled out all of the drawers. It’s been fascinating,” Kastner said.

Aside from the drawings O’Keeffe had organized in file folders by name, Kastner came across books filled with photographs O’Keeffe had taken of the same subjects from the same vantage points, just in different light and shadow. There was an album of cottonwood trees where O’Keeffe was clearly studying their texture and another of an area near her home in Abiquiu that she called the Black Place.

A series of her Polaroids is part of the show, along with the large painted canvases that were inspired by her study of the V-shapes in Glen Canyon.

“By putting these things together — the drawings, the photographs, the bones, the stones — we can recreate a kind of look at her practice. We can’t see her practice, but we can see the evidence from one object to another,” Kastner said.

Aside from revealing details about how she worked, the way O’Keeffe trimmed her brushes and stored her tools and art materials also provides some insight into her personality.

Over and over, Kastner and Lynes use the words precise and meticulous.

“Hundreds of brushes shaped and reshaped,” Kastner said. “It’s all about that finish that we know so well in her paintings, getting a precise line or a precise contour to come up, feathering over to make the surface as smooth and clear as it is. It follows through to everything.”

Kastner recalls that as she was laying out the exhibition, a rigid order began to emerge from the displays of O’Keeffe’s art materials. She wanted something “messy” to break up the orderly squares so she headed downstairs to the collection room.

“There was nothing,” she said. “What I’ve learned in looking at all of these materials, and particularly her art materials, is how meticulous she was. It comes out even in the way she stored materials.”

Visitors will see several galleries that include O’Keeffe’s tools, her line sketches and her more elaborate paintings. Infrared studies of some of her canvases also help to show how her drawings provided the foundation for her works of art.

Those works, Lynes said, have a certain look about them.

“It all reflects her aesthetic: very simplified, elegant forms that relate to one another, either abstractly or realistically. She uses them when she’s painting recognizable forms and she also uses them when she’s painting abstract forms,” she said. “They always come together in similar sorts of arrangement, and because of that, you always know you’re looking at an O’Keeffe.”

The curators acknowledge that many of the works in “O’Keeffiana” would not be part of a traditional exhibition, but this show is more about discovering the painter’s process than celebrating what has become a worldwide fascination with her monumental flowers and sweeping vistas.

O’Keeffe worked differently from many other artists, Lynes said. For example, Renaissance painters would often stray from their original under drawings, repositioning elements of their paintings as they went along.

“O’Keeffe usually doesn’t do that,” she said. “It’s interesting. It tells you she knew exactly what she wanted to do.”

Part of the inspiration for the exhibition comes of another exhibit Kastner put together while working in San Francisco. That show highlighted the work of a photographer who captured artists working in their studios. He had become friends with them and often stayed long enough that they forgot that he was there.

“I thought they were beautiful photographs, but people thought they were windows into a studio. People were fascinated to see artists in their studios, and I began to realize this is a place most people don’t get to see,” Kastner said.

There are very few photographs of O’Keeffe working in her studio or out in the wilds of New Mexico. However, the museum does have images of her studio, and on the window sills were an ever-changing cast of rocks and bones she used as subjects.

“There’s a quote about her infinite interest in natural color and shape and how it represents the wideness and wonder of the world she lives in. I think she was a student of that her entire life,” Kastner said.

Both Kastner and Lynes consider the exhibition an invaluable look at the artistic practices of one of America’s most important painters — practices that were consistent throughout O’Keeffe’s career, from her early work in 1916 to her last abstractions in the late 1970s.

“We can’t conjure a whole person out of this exhibition,” Kastner said, “but we can see the trace of her action on paper and canvas.”

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