Georgia O’Keeffe and the Faraway: “Touch Relics” on Display
Georgia O’Keeffe and the Faraway: Nature and Image, at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, continues the positive trend begun last year by O’Keeffiana: Art and Art Materials, in broadening our view of the artist by presenting artifacts from the museum’s vault alongside her works. As the second hagiographic show in a series of three, O’Keeffe and the Faraway contextualizes O’Keeffe’s work by highlighting aspects of her artistic practice, especially as they lend to material explorations of things she touched, and places she visited.
The first installment, O’Keeffiana: Art and Art Materials (2010-2011) was organized by Associate Curator Carolyn Kastner, and displayed in the galleries some of the institution’s rich holdings of O’Keeffe material culture, from tubes of paint and brushes to the rocks and bones she so famously painted. Kastner was called on to install the current Faraway in the absence of chief curator Barbara Lynes, who had left the institution abruptly
two weeks before the day the exhibit opened. Lynes, in her additional capacity as director of the O’Keeffe Research Center, had until the O’Keeffiana show kept discrete deliberate unmaskings of O’Keeffe’s process. Kastner last year broke with the tradition, electing to show preparatory drawings next to their more finished forms in oil and pastel paint.
So as we take a look at the quotidian trappings that informed Miss O’Keeffe’s days, the blue jeans and sneakers on display in Georgia O’Keeffe and the Faraway offer up a teaser for the culminating exhibition, planned for 2015, which will display wider selections from her wardrobe. Altogether this series is a welcome view into the breadth of the collections held by the museum and research center, which also include O’Keeffe’s homes at Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch.
Over the past 15 years, under the helm of Barbara Lynes, the museum has mainly presented O’Keeffe’s work on primarily aesthetic terms, with little explanatory text beyond the “tombstone,” a brief label notating artist, date, medium, and owner. Although the approach may have stemmed from an acknowledgement that the average museum visitor spends no more than 17 seconds on both the work and the label, it is more likely that the dearth of text was a conscious gesture to purify her art, allowing it to rise above the interpretations of art historians and curators. But a white-box, purist approach to displaying an artist’s work is also a highly mediated act of creative presentation, no matter how much O’Keeffe herself might have appreciated (even insisted?) upon it.
Four Southwestern locations are the focuses of Georgia O’Keeffe and the Faraway: the Pedernal, Glen Canyon, and the dramatic, almost lunar landscapes she called the White Place and the Black Place. Whereas the Pedernal could be seen and painted from O’Keeffe’s house at Ghost Ranch, the other three required travel, by car or raft, and also often entailed camping.
Indeed, the exhibition presents O’Keeffe as the oldest-living Girl Scout, with a diorama of her camping gear, complete with chairs, a table, pots and pans, and a tent improvised from tarps. As the photographs in the gallery of White Place views show, Maria Chabot (1914-2001) was O’Keeffe’s camping companion in the 1940s, and she lovingly preserved the gear, as if they were holy relics, or what Hans Belting called “touch relics” in Likeness and Presence: A History of the Image before the Era of Art (1994). These are objects which were owned or came into contact with holy figures such as Jesus Christ and the Buddha. The O’Keeffe Museum sometimes reminds one of a Medieval saint’s shrine or reliquary, so the artist’s legions of devotees should appreciate her clothes, pencils, forks, and knives. All good dioramas need a panoramic backdrop, supplied here by Rhonda Hole’s large-scale color photograph of the Black Place. The photo-mural was much larger at the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame and Museum, which co-organized the exhibition; even much reduced in scale it still dominates the intimate O’Keeffe Museum gallery.
If you are looking for O’Keeffe’s flowers, there are few in this selection of work from the “faraway,” a term she used to refer to lonely places in the Southwestern landscape, and which curators like Bruce Ferguson, Site Santa Fe‘s first, appropriated in 1995 to brand New Mexico’s efforts to go global. Instead, four galleries present O’Keeffe’s plein-air practice. As was true in O’Keeffiana, Georgia O’Keeffe and the Faraway opens a window on the artist’s habits. She visited Glen Canyon on the Colorado River several times, beginning in 1961, when she was 71. Although these expeditions resulted in just three paintings, the museum archives preserve valuable evidence of O’Keeffe’s process, including in this case, rarely exhibited drawings and Polaroid photographs.
Comparing the Polaroids with the sketches and the final paintings, all gathered in the gallery of Glen Canyon material, it is immediately apparent that O’Keeffe’s finished landscapes are carefully selected, edited, and abstracted versions of the geologic features she observed. A large rock visible in the photos has been removed from the sketches and finished paintings. Instead the products of these expeditions can also be considered “faraway,” because they are formally distanced from the places to which they nominally make reference. Their mediated nature compares favorably with such iconic, but pre-Modern, American landscapes as Thomas Cole’s Oxbow (1836), or Frederick Church’s Niagara (1857), which are also abstractions of real places, no matter that they, like O’Keeffe’s works, are often taken to portray their respective scenes with great fidelity.
Even O’Keeffe’s practice of naming places–the White Place and the Black Place—seems a creative act of distancing, and even a vaguely colonialist gesture, like Columbus naming the places he “discovered” in America. Whether she discovered these locales or not, there are spectacular interpretations of them in the exhibition, such as two paintings of the Black Place that address each other across the gallery.
Georgia O’Keeffe and the Faraway humanizes O’Keeffe by exhibiting, not only the clothes and camping gear alongside the art objects she created on these journeys, but also snapshots and even facsimiles of letters written to Alfred Stieglitz, a major departure from previous O’Keeffe Museum practice.
One letter, from 1944, mentions how she and Maria Chabot canned 31 pints of cherries. The Glen Canyon snapshots 15 years later show O’Keeffe sketching, making cocktails and rowing. The letters also give us a sense of how happy she was when she was in the country; a photograph taken at the White Place actually shows her smiling. But they also relate the difficulty of travel to these locations, as well as torturous working conditions. We are left with a satisfying glimpse of the faraway, as experienced, photographed, sketched, and painted by the Faraway One, as Stieglitz called O’Keeffe.