Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i at The New York Botanical Garden
By Bobbie Leigh
You don’t need to travel 5,000 miles to experience tropical Hawaii. All it takes is a snap 20 minute ride on Metro North from Grand Central Station to the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG). Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i is the Garden’s enthralling new exhibition of the flora and landscapes which inspired the painter’s nine week sojourn in Hawaii in 1939. It is the first time that a group of her rarely seen Hawaiian paintings are on display in New York as well as a display of more than 300 tropical plant types in the Garden’s Conservatory.
At the time of her visit to Hawaii, O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was already one of the most celebrated painters in America. She had previously visited New Mexico and produced some modernist paintings of high- desert landscapes. Although O’Keeffe had achieved considerable recognition as an artist, personal and professional success did not match. O’Keeffe’s husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), who owned the gallery where her works were exhibited, was a well-known misogynist. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz fought about his control of her art and his flagrant affair with Dorothy Norman (age 27 to his 57), a young photographer whom he later married.
At 51, O’Keeffe was at a turning point in her career. Should she return to New Mexico permanently or remain in Manhattan? So it’s not surprising that when offered a “freebie,” a nine week commission, all expenses paid by the Hawai’ian Pineapple Company, she snapped it up. All she had to do was submit two paintings which could be used for print advertisements. At first, she submitted only one. The company supposedly shipped a plant from Hawaii to her New York studio. She then painted Pineapple Bud to fulfill her obligation.
From the moment O’Keeffe landed in Hawaii, where the local newspapers referred to her as the “famous painter of flowers,” she was enthralled by the garlands of fragrant plumeria and other tropical flower leis that welcomed her. After a bit of socializing, she spent most of her time on O’ahu, Kaua’i, the Big Island and Maui where she felt deep connections with the black sand beaches, waterfalls, and lush mountains. According to the exhibition’s catalog, “O’Keeffe often depicted landscapes with enough accuracy for them to be recognizable, but as in her flower paintings, she altered scale, omitted details, and changed colors for artistic effect.”
O’Keeffe’s seascape and flower paintings are on view at the Garden’s LuEsther T. Merz Art Gallery. They reveal a painter inspired by the islands’ rugged topography, landscapes, and above all, flowers. In one of her letters to Stieglitz she writes: “I wanted to make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.” To do this, she paints large scale, as she writes, then “ you could not ignore [their] beauty.” O’Keeffe also discovered that she could say things with color that she couldn’t say any other way: “things I had no words for.”
This is certainly characteristic of her Hibiscus paintings. Here is where she experimented with color, form, and large scale images as in her painting, Hibiscus with Plumeria, two extreme close-ups set against a bright blue sky.
The NYBG opened its exhibition on May 19th with 19 of the 20 O’Keeffe Hawaiian pictures. One was missing, a brilliant yellow painting of a sole Hibiscus flower which the curator had tried without success to locate. It resurfaced unexpectedly in a Christie’s auction on May 22 where it was sold for $4.8 million. Buyer unknown but maybe the owner will be generous abd lend it to the exhibition.
A short stroll from the gallery is the Enid A Haupt Conservatory, transformed into tropical showcase of exotic Hawaiian plants – frangipani, bougainvillea, heliconia, bird-of-paradise and ginger. All that’s missing is the Nene goose, Hawaii’s official state bird. The plants are arranged around an open-sided, pavilion, typical of a traditional Hawaiian hale, a thatched-roof dwelling.
As art historian Cody Hartley notes in the catalog O’Keeffe approached conventional subjects in innovative ways. Like her paintings, the New York Botanical Garden also brings us a carefully edited version of tropical Hawaii, iconic beauty in a pristine setting.
The exhibition is on view through October 28, 2018. Please check the website for events, programs, demonstrations, and activities for children. Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i at the New York Botanical Garden.
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.