Colorado Denver Metropolitan Museums

Georgia O’Keefe at the Denver Art Museum

DENVER –  At a media preview for the exhibition Georgia O’Keefe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land, which opens Feb. 10 at the Denver Art Museum, a fellow journalist said, “finally a show I can relate to. I know New Mexico.”

Soon after this, Thomas Smith, one the curators of the show, and one who heads the Western American Art department for the Denver Art Museum, said this show will offer something to those who know nothing about O’Keefe’s painting or American Modernism.

What will someone who doesn’t know anything about O’Keefe get? I pondered with the associate curator of native arts, John Lukavic, who also curated this show. Especially, those who freak at the mention of Modernism?

“They will see her exploring New Mexico” he said, and relate to her, especially if viewers are new to Denver or the West. Much of the work is from the period close to 1929, the first summer O’Keefe spent in New Mexico, staying at Mabel Dodge’s house in Taos.   “And they’ll see that she came with a modernist style that she’d been working with in New York,” Lukavic added.

The front side of Ranchos de Taos church
The front side of Ranchos de Taos church

Lukavic was instrumental in the section of this exhibit where O’Keefe’s work is juxtaposed with Hopi sculpture from the DAM’s American Indian collection. O’Keefe owned several authentic katsina-tihu and kitschy kachinas*  (I learned the difference between these two from this show). She painted them, but rarely showed the paintings.  This part of her work isn’t as vividly dimensional as the landscape and earthy architectural parts of this show, so that reticence is understandable, but that doesn’t diminish the pleasure of this opportunity to see lesser-known work from O’Keefe.

Really, is there a bad O’Keefe?  Every one I’ve seen is very pleasant, sensuous, and heart warming, including the more than 50 paintings included in this show.  When people look at her emphasis on line, form and color, Curator Smith explained, they will see a beautiful painting, possibly without knowing they’re getting modernism.

I saw what I love about modernism — that details are honed down to only the most important information, only the stuff necessary to convey the idea that the artist is communicating.  We take it for granted that art will modify reality nowadays, but we forget how beautiful it is to have this done for us: selecting something interesting to focus on, minimizing the range of colors, painting just portions of the landscape, intensifying shadows. I was also reminded that O’Keefe painted the BACK of the church of Ranchos de Taos. This beautiful form, not the church entrance, has become an icon of New Mexico.   Thank you Modernists, because without you, we would not have the iMac, or the iAnything.

O’Keefe first saw New Mexico from the train. She was going through on her way to Colorado – to Rocky Mountain National Park.  Imagine if there had been a supportive art/design aesthetic culture along the Front Range that could have sucked her in as New Mexico did a few years later.  O’Keefe might have given us an abundant collection of lavish modernist Colorado landscapes. Dedicated people will, I think, make good work no matter where they are, but they need support to flourish and communicate it.

They need a community that has some knowledge or interest and I realized how value these qualities are while viewing this show with knowledgeable people.

O’Keefe said, soon after she arrived in N.M according to Smith,  “I’ve found a landscape that fits me exactly.”   Something American, and yet connected to what was long-lastingly lauded in the old world, something European, Smith explained, was what she and other Modernists were looking for.  New Mexico fits because it is old – Santa Fe was established by the Spanish more than 400 years ago – with an even older Native American culture, which Lukavik pointed out. He explained that while the Hopi spirit sculptures were new to O’Keefe, every Pueblo kid grew up with them.

Lukavik said he chose to display Hopi artists who worked before or at the same time O’Keefe was in N.M, and I assume he can see stylistic changes – hard for me to see –influenced by the times. I don’t know much about Native American art, so I avoid it like other people avoid Modernism. This show let it wash over me, with little resistance.

The curator said O’Keefe was seeking out color when she painted kachinas (or flowers) because the landscape is pretty drab. The Hopi probably were, too.

I believe, as Lukavik suggests, that the way O’Keefe painted these sculptures shows a respect for the native artists. She didn’t abstract them, he said.  She didn’t have to; they are already an abstraction. She painted these objects for several years, returning to the same object several times as she did with other subjects. But maybe too much of reality had already been taken out of them to leave much subject for her abstraction.  A few of the paintings are framed in unusually ways that make them feel more like objects than ethereal paintings, which is more characteristic of post-modernism. And they’re fun.

The traditional works – the katsina tihu – are more colloquially called katchina dolls. I understand this term, not as something demeaning, but as a way to describe their intimate scale and humanism.  And I know they are respectable, serious religious icons.

This function bounds the artist-maker of these sculpture to their religion’s demands – they have to paint a spirit  – a tithu – according to tradition so that everyone can recognize it – the Crow Mother (Angwusnasomtaqa) has to look like a woman, although, the actual translation of her name is a man who dances with crow wings as hair knots.

These limitations are exactly what the Modernists were fighting against. They were pursuing a new kind of art that wasn’t bound to tradition or representation, and required courage. It’s hard to make art when there are no limitations – make anything you want, just make it art. There is something easy about just making good representations of the established, okay-to-be-made-into-art object, and something hard about finding a new way to do it.

O’Keefe came from New York as one of these American Modernists bucking the old system, but she still had to communicate with her tribe. Getting away to New Mexico gave her solitude in which to work and to find something of her own that the Modernists could still understand. As Smith said, she’d painted architecture in New York but the paintings had been vertical and cold colored while in N.M they become earthy and horizontal.

And she went back and forth from more representational depictions to more abstract paintings, so the show is not organized chronologically. Instead, it’s organized into subject matter: landscapes, architecture and katsina.  She painted all these subjects for a long time and didn’t really have distinct periods.

The set-up of the three sections works.  As always, O’Keefe’s paintings of land and architecture are easy to look at, a couple dozen of each theme and in good variety. The Hopi sculpture section is a little-seen theme in O’Keefe’s work and the DAM curators did a great job of showing them off. The final gallery of the exhibits shows contemporary work by Hopi and other Native American artists who have now borrowed from her, as she had borrowed from them. There are some nice surprises in this section.

A video, off in a corner, has some really good information and is mostly in O’Keefe’s voice. I rarely like the hum of video in a painting/sculpture space but I’m all for education.  If everyone knew as much about Modernism as they know about football they’d probably enjoy it just as much.

Walking through this show with knowledgeable curators was really enlightening, even for someone who knows about modernism, and I learned about Hopi art. I feel like a poor Modernist sympathizer, however.  I’m being soppingly kind to the great institution – to the Denver Art Museum – but art is my church and I just want to be a good member of the congregation.

There will be several opportunities until the show comes down April 28 to learn more.

*Katsina is the name of the Hopi religion and sculptures made of the gods are called tithu. Katchina is an anglicized version of this word that means Indian craft you can buy by the roadside.