Thursday, March 12, 2015

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Eloquent Objects at Tacoma Art Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe (18871986), Black Patio DEoor, 1955. Oil on canvas, 40⅛ x 30 inches. Amon Carter Museum of American Art. Gift of the artist. (Georgia O’Keefe 1283). © Copyright 2014 Amon Carter Museum of American Art.©2015 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum /Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy International Arts®.

Georgia O'Keeffe (18871986), Mule's Skull with Pink Poinsettia, 1936. Oil on canvas, 40⅛ × 30 inches. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Gift of The Burnett Foundation. 1997.06.014. (O'Keeffe 876)  © 2015 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Courtesy International Arts ®.

Maurice Sterne (1878−1957), New Mexico Still Life, circa 1919. 0il on canvas, 10½ × 23½ inches. Lent by Denver Art Museum, Colorado. William Sr. and Dorothy Harmsen Collection, by exchange. 2013.5. © Maurice Sterne. Courtesy International Arts ®.

Getting the show “Eloquent Objects: Georgia O’Keeffe and Still-Life Art in New Mexico” is a major coup for Tacoma Art Museum. TAM is the only West Coast stop for this major national touring exhibition featuring 22 of O’Keeffe’s paintings and 42 paintings by her contemporaries who, like O’Keefe, lived and worked in New Mexico for a while. Over a period of approximately 30 years, the deserts of New Mexico were a Mecca for modernist artists including the likes of Stuart Davis and Marsden Hartley and, the most famous of all, O’Keeffe.

“It has been a decade since the Pacific Northwest has seen so many O’Keefe paintings under one roof, and this is the first exhibition to focus on the role of the still life as a means for exploring New Mexico’s culture and diversity,” says TAM Director Stephanie Stebich.”

The paintings on view comprise an all-inclusive interpretation of the term “still life.” The works chosen are still life in spirit and approach to subject even when not specifically so as subject matter. Included are landscapes, interior scenes and abstract paintings categorized as still life because the subject matter is treated as an arrangement of objects, usually up close in tight space with little or no linear perspective. They encompass a time period from about 1920 to 1950 and are arranged according to themes: bones; blossoms; fruits, vegetables and domestic objects; cultural artifacts; architecture and abstractions. 

A seventh overriding theme not explicitly stated is space — the vast open spaces of land and sky in the Southwestern deserts, the cramped spaces of objects interior objects, and most importantly the modernist spatial arrangement of shapes inside the four sides of a picture frame, a sense of space inherited from Cezanne and from cubism. Many of the earliest works in the show are hugely influenced by Cezanne. 

The cramped space and the solidly painted fruit in Jozef Bakos’ 1926 “Still Life with Self Portrait” could easily be mistaken for a Cezanne. His “Kitchen Window” not only has an upward-tilted table like Cezanne’s, Mt. St. Victoire, the mountain Cezanne painted countless times, can be seen through the window. The arrangement of objects and space is purely abstract, and there is the fascinating inclusion of a specific issue of Life magazine on the table. Another example of a Cezanne-like still life is Maurice Sterne’s 1919 painting “New Mexico Still life.” The perspective of the cane chair (which must surely remind viewers of van Gogh’s “Bedroom at Arles) is pushed up to the surface like a Cezanne table and the peppers, specifically Southwestern, look like Cezanne’s fruit.

Harry Paul Burlin’s untitled still life with guitar looks like a copy of a cubist still life by Picasso or Braque. 

The one group of paintings that do not show such an aesthetic concern with visual space are the paintings of cultural artifacts, and speaking generally these are less successful as art than many of the other works. They are more concerned with subject matter than with composition and color.
Other outstanding non-O’Keeffe works in this show include Hartley’s “Santos, New Mexico” and Alexandre Hoque’s “Studio Corner-Taos.”

Almost every painting in the show employs similar modernist and cubist space, none more beautifully than O’Keeffe’s many paintings. In all of her paintings the main objects are seen up close and all of the shapes are classically balanced yet ever so slightly asymmetrical. The placement and relationship between the objects in her paintings and the frame are influenced by the cropping of modernist photography. She was, after all, married to the great photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and similar cropping was common among most of the modern artists of the early 20th century. She even went so far in her awareness of the format as to instruct her framer to change the color or materials of frames at the horizon line. 

The paintings for which O’Keeffe is most famous, the large flowers, are stupendous. Her paintings of bones are beautiful and mystical. Her color variations range from striking contrasts to the most subtle of hue and value modulations. O’Keefee’s paintings are ubiquitous in reproduction on everything from calendars to placemats, but her original works are seldom shown outside the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. This exhibition will be for many a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see so many of them in the flesh. They are absolutely stunning.

Eloquent Objects: Georgia O’Keeffe and Still-Life Art in New Mexico, Tue.-Sun. 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Third Thursday 10 a.m. to –8 p.m., through June 7, $12-$14, Tacoma Art Museum, 1701 Pacific Ave. Tacoma,

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