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Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i at The New York Botanical Garden

Harold Stein. [Georgia O’Keeffe on Leho‘ula Beach, near Aleamai, Hāna,Maui], 1939
Gelatin silver print, 2 x 2-7/8 in. Alfred Stieglitz/Georgia O’Keeffe Archive,Yale Collection of American Literature
Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library
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.

Georgia O’Keeffe
Heliconia, Crab’s Claw Ginger, 1939
Oil on canvas, 19 x 16 in.
Collection of Sharon Twigg-Smith
© 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York

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.

Georgia O’Keeffe
Pineapple Bud, 1939
Oil on canvas, 19 x 16 in.
Private collection
© 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York

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.”

Georgia O’Keeffe Hibiscus with Plumeria, 1939Oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.SmithsonianAmerican Art MuseumGift of Sam Rose and Julie Walters, 2004.30.6 © 2018Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

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.

Georgia O’Keeffe
Waterfall, No. I, ‘Īao Valley, Maui, 1939
Oil on canvas, 19 1/8 x 16 in.
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, Tennessee
Gift of Art Today 76.7
© 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS),
New York

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.

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