Friday, January 24, 2014

Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam and the Land


Montclair Art Museum, Montclair, NJ, September 28, 2012–January 20, 2013

Denver Art Museum, February 10–April 28, 2013

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, May 17–September 8, 2013

Heard Museum, Phoenix, AZ September 27, 2013–March 3, 2014

The exhibition, organized by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, brought to light a relatively unknown aspect of O’Keeffe’s art and thinking—her deep respect for the diverse and distinctive cultures of northern New Mexico. The exhibition featured 53 O’Keeffe works including 15 rarely seen pictures of different Hopi katsina tihu, along with examples of these types of figures. Chronicling her artwork created in New Mexico, the exhibition explores O’Keeffe’s paintings of New Mexico’s Hispanic and Native American architecture, cultural objects and her New Mexico landscapes.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Ram's Head, Blue Morning Glory, 1938. Oil on canvas; 20 x 30 in. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; Gift of The Burnett Foundation. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986) began spending part of the year living and working in New Mexico in 1929, a pattern she rarely altered until 1949. She then made northern New Mexico her permanent home three years after the death of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz (1864–1946), the celebrated photographer and one of America’s first advocates of modern art. In addition to the astonishingly beautiful New Mexico landscapes O’Keeffe painted, she was also inspired to paint some of the area’s churches, crosses and folk art as well as Native American subjects, such as architecture and katsinam tithu, commonly referred to as kachina or katsina dolls.

Georgia O'Keeffe, "Paul's Kachina," 1931, oil on board, 8 x 8 in., Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Georgia O'Keeffe, “Church Steeple,” 1930, oil on canvas. 30 x 16 in. Gift of The Burnett Foundation.
© Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Katsinam, plural for katsina, primarily refers to the supernatural beings that are believed to visit Hopi villagers during half of the year. Katsinam have the power to bring rain, exercise control over the weather, help in many of the everyday activities of the villagers, punish offenders of ceremonial or social laws and, in general, to function as messengers between the spiritual domain and mortals. The figures are used to teach children about the different Hopi katsinam. O’Keeffe was privy to viewing many cultural ceremonies and was inspired by the beautifully detailed figurines.

"Kachina" (1934), oil on canvas, Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

While the New Mexico landscape remained a prominent part of O’Keeffe’s life and art, very little has been known or written about her involvement with Native American and Hispanic art and culture. However, almost immediately upon her arrival in New Mexico, she responded to the area’s cultural richness. Between 1931 and 1945, for example, O'Keeffe created numerous drawings, watercolors and paintings of katsinam tithu. Because she retained and seldom exhibited most of these paintings, they remain generally unknown to the public.

At various intervals between 1931 and 1945, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) completed seventeen drawings and paintings of katsina tithu (“kachina dolls”), the painted-wood representations of spirit beings carved by Native American artists—especially Hopi and Zuni—that have long played an important role in Pueblo and Hopi ceremonialism. O’Keeffe never explained how or why she became interested in these Native American carvings. Because she gave generic titles to her paintings of them except those works depicting Kokopelli, she may not have been aware of their specific names, meaning, or functions. But the artist always took inspiration from her immediate environment, whether working abstractly or representationally, often seeking subjects that conveyed her feelings for or experiences of specific places; her depictions of Native American spirit beings were no exception. As she later pointed out, “My pictures are my statement of a personal experience.”

Georgia O’Keeffe, Rust Red Hills,
1930. Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University, Indiana; Sloan Fund Purchase, 62.02. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.


Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico
Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land
By Barbara Buhler Lynes and Carolyn Kastner
Published in association with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

The book, which accompanies a touring exhibition of fifty-three works by the artist, features fifteen drawings and paintings of katsina subjects made between 1931 and 1941 and thirty-eight additional works made between 1929 and 1953 that resulted from her deep exploration of the distinctive architecture and cultural objects of northern New Mexico’s Hispanic and Native American communities. Also included are numerous landscape paintings, a subject O’Keeffe addressed most consistently during her career. The book features contributions by noted art historian W. Jackson Rushing III, Hopi weaver Ramona Sakiestewa, Hopi artist Dan Namingha, and Hopi tribal leader and author Alph H. Secakuku. Rushing discusses O’Keeffe and other modernist painters, including Emil Bistram, Fred Kabotie, and Gustave Baumann, in their approach to Native subjects; Sakiestewa writes about O’Keeffe’s katsina paintings and the influence the artist had on her own designs; Secakuku explicates katsinam ceremonalism; and Namingha is interviewed about katsina imagery in his work.

Barbara Buhler Lynes is former curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. She has published widely on Georgia O’Keeffe and American modernism and is considered the leading expert on O’Keeffe’s art and life. Carolyn Kastner is associate curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Her research, publications, and curatorial projects focus on the diversity of American modernism.

Paperbound with Flaps: $34.95 ISBN 978-0-89013-547-1

From a review of the Montclair show (some images added):

For all their ethnographic importance, O’Keeffe showed little beyond visual interest in these striking figures. If anything, her attitude is playful. She zeroes in on features that are cute or endearing, such as the one she titled

"Blue-Headed Indian Doll."

She even painted a fake one (it wears long white pants and has a feather stuck artlessly into its head), though her title,

"A Man From the Desert,"

suggests she knew....

The landscapes are the heart of this show. Her background as an abstract painter and precisionist shows in the ease with which she simplified and reduced the landscape. The relative bareness of desert topography suited these goals perfectly. She makes you feel – rather than simply see – the swell and roll of the land, the way these strange red hills stretch out their claws and others undulate like animals under a blanket.

Chama River, Ghost Ranch,' 1937

She wraps the Chama River into its twisting valley like a stretch of blue roadway with zooming straightaways and banking curves. Even a composition as simple as

"Hill, New Mexico"

feels thrilling because of the seeming force with which it erupts from the ground.

From a NY Times review of the Montclair show (some images added):

In “Ranchos Church No. 1” (1929),

"Ranchos Church No. 1" (1929), oil on canvas. Collection of the Norton Museum of Art, 2013 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

you can see O’Keeffe teasing the line between abstraction and representation, but softening the outlines from her Precisionist canvases.

By the next summer, O’Keeffe’s gaze had moved up to the hills, which she began to paint in oil...

“The Mountain, New Mexico” (1931)

contains links to European modernism: those familiar with Cézanne’s and Braque’s paintings of L’Estaque, just outside Marseille in southern France, will see a distinct echo.

“Back of Marie’s No. 4” (1931)

Georgia O'Keeffe: Back of Marie’s No. 4, 1931, oil on canvas, 16 x 30 inches; Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

is another stratified composition, with a strip of green at the bottom, while

“Hill, New Mexico” (1935), (above)

with its bright, almost Pop colors, looks surprisingly contemporary.