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11.19.2011 ~ o’keeffe’s haunting

by | Nov 19, 2011 | cottonwoods, georgia o'keeffe, Italy, New Mexico, Rome, Santa Fe

Whether I want her to or not, Georgia keeps following me. Or maybe she’s being sneaky and is secretly leading me. But she keeps cropping up.

Of course, it’s kind of hard to live in Santa Fe and *not* be reminded of the woman from time to time — this *is* referred to as “O’Keeffe Country” after all. But still. You’d think I’d be able to escape her reign when traveling overseas, at least.  Wouldn’t you know it but one of the big art exhibits going on at the Museo della Fondazione Roma this autumn is that of Georgia O’Keeffe — her first major retrospective in Italy; the show opened while I was there.


Years ago I went to a colossal retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work back in New York. Room after room after room of her work.
Later, I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum here in Santa Fe shortly after it opened. With a dismissive east coast I-grew-up-in-the-Met sniff, I deemed the museum unimpressive, so paltry was its collection compared to the grand and sophisticated display I’d seen on 5th Avenue.

Around that time O’Keeffe’s poppies adorned a US postage stamp. And of course for a long time her paintings were featured on posters, especially those for the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, which seemed to be everywhere in New Mexico.

Some time in there I read a biography on O’Keeffe and came away with the nagging feeling that she was…… kind of…..a bitch. Ouch. Disappointing.

All this jaded me on O’Keeffe. I had O’keeffe overload — like she was someone whom I’d admired, and then we became FaceBook friends, and now I was getting too much information about her.

So when I arrived in Rome only to learn that Georgia was there, too, I felt a little bit miffed. “Jeez..REALLY? Of ALL the artists who could possibly be having a show in Rome while I’m here, does it have to be Georgia O’Keeffe?! Can’ it be an artist who isn’t from Santa Fe?!”

When my friend with whom I was staying expressed an interest in going to the show, I was less than enthusiastic about accompanying her.

But then…two weeks in and a couple of days before I was to leave Rome, I warmed up to the idea of seeing the O’Keeffe show. Hell, after two weeks of studying art spanning just about every century except the last one, I was ready to view something a little more contemporary. And I was starting, too, to look forward to returning home to the Southwest and getting busy in my studio. The idea of looking at paintings from my part of the New World in an old museum in the heart of the Old World was having increasing appeal.

Still, little did I imagine what a treat I was in for.

If there’s one thing the Italians do right (and actually I can think of quite a few things they do right…), it’s put on an art exhibition.

Through stage props, signage, photos and music, the Museum attempted — rather charmingly — to conjure a sense of the feel of New York City, the Adirondacks, and New Mexico — three of the most significant environments of O’Keeffe’s long life. And they did a pretty good job of theatrically transporting you from the heart of Rome to America. (Indeed, were it not for the consistently beautiful, model-like gallery attendants dressed in black Gucci and Prada and their sensual Italian accents, I might very well have been convinced that I WAS in the US.)

Photographs of O’Keeffe — always in black and white — perennially cause me to pause. So elegant and beautiful was she through all the stages of her life…. Even more than that though, when studying the photos of this exhibit and the look in her eyes and contours of her hands, I sensed a connection; a recognition: “we are similar in a lot of ways, you and I.”

But it was the artwork itself, of course, which charmed the most. I was tickled to rediscover some real gems — her quick sketch of looking out a tent door (graphite), and simple but weighty nude studies of herself (watercolor)…her portraits of fruit (especially the ‘alligator pear,” otherwise known as an avocado).

I especially appreciated being reminded of the fact that O’Keeffe danced back and forth throughout her career between painting representationally and painting abstractly — something I also do (in my case the dance is between traditional oil landscape painting and more abstracted mixed media paintings).

Her abstractions based on Lake George, with their deep damp greens and blues swirling and curling within each other, particularly dazzled. One in particular had almost whimsical pops of color, like sparks. Back at the apartment later that evening, I attempted to capture a sense of it in my sketchbook (though I was limited to black and white):

untitled sketch, copyright Dawn Chandler 2011

The last few rooms of the exhibit were, like her life, dedicated to New Mexico. The museum had attempted to recreate adobe walls and a feel for the desert, and I’d say they did a fair job of it. I was tickled to see a recreation of her studio — envious of the long white tables and vast wall space of her sanctuary — and fascinated to see some of her actual belongings.

O’Keeffe’s paintings of bones floating over landscapes never did much for me, nor did they now. But I was charmed to discover her paintings of cottonwood trees; I hadn’t remembered seeing these before. Trees are a potent theme of mine, and I’d had another experience in Rome (will write about later) that had me musing about trees with renewed interest. O’keeffe’s trees with their wispy feather-like branches of gold pulled me in and made me want to get home to Santa Fe and walk under the cottonwood trees myself.

I have now done so — returned home to Santa Fe to walk under the cottonwoods.

And O’Keeffe is back here, too, beguiling me. I started thinking about this post on Tuesday — the 15th of November, which, as it turns out, is O’Keeffe’s birthday.

A couple days later I learned that I have been invited to participate in “Odes and Offerings” — an art exhibit at the Santa Fe Community gallery opening in March, 2012. The show is to feature collaborations between visual artists and poets. I have been sent two poems by Barbara Rockman, and will “select lines, phrases, stanzas, or even the an entire poem to use as text integral to [my] work.”

The name of one of the poems?

“Letter from Georgia O’Keeffe To Alfred Steiglitz Upon Seeing His Photograph of Her Hands.”