A desert flower at home in Hawaii

The New York Botanical Garden previews an eye-opening look at Georgia O’Keeffe’s work in – of all places – the Aloha State. Who knew?

When Todd Forrest — the Arthur Ross vice president for horticulture and living collections at the New York Botanical Garden — was brainstorming for the Garden’s next multidisciplinary blockbuster, he asked a colleague, “What do you think of Georgia O’Keeffe in Hawaii?” “Georgia O’Keeffe painted Hawaii?”came the response.

It’s a natural reaction. When we think of O’Keeffe (1887-1986), we think of starkly beautiful Manhattan skyscrapers at night, the misty mountains majesty of Lake George, New York, hauntingly spare landscapes of her beloved New Mexico and large-scale flowers, whose feminine energy borders on the sensual. Or perhaps we think of the fine-boned portraits her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, made of her. But the Aloha State?

Georgia O’Keeffe. Pineapple Bud, 1939. Oil on canvas, 19 x 16 in. Private collection. © 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

That’s about to change as the Botanical Garden presents “Georgia O’Keeffe:  Visions of Hawai’i” (May 19-Oct. 28), featuring 20 of the painter’s depictions of Hawaii — some of which have not been exhibited together since their 1940 debut at Stieglitz’s An American Place gallery in Manhattan — curated by Theresa Papanikolas, deputy director of art and programs at the Honolulu Museum of Art.

Accompanying this exhibit — which will be held in the Garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library Art Gallery and include landscapes of Maui’s interior ʻĪao Valley and lava-crusted shores — will be a flower show in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory designed by Francisca Coelho with set pieces by Tony Award winner Scott Pask. Borders of ti, frangipani, bougainvillea, heliconia, hibiscus, bird of paradise and ginger will lead viewers to a hale — a thatched-roof pavilion in the style of traditional Hawaiian architecture — ringed with beds of canoe plants, useful edibles like bananas, coconuts and sweet potatoes originally brought to the Islands by Polynesian settlers 1,700 years ago.

Aloha Nights, live music, hula performances, a film series, a symposium, artisan demonstrations and the Garden’s Poetry Walk will bring our 50th state to the Bronx for what promises to be a new window onto Hawaii as well as O’Keeffe’s work.

That island work was as much about commerce as it was about art, at least initially. In 1939, O’Keeffe accepted a commission from the Hawaiian Pineapple Co. (now the Dole Food Co.) to produce two paintings for advertising campaigns. (Other artists who accepted the offer included sculptor Isamu Noguchi.) The challenge came at critical moment in O’Keeffe’s life. Already famous and now middle-aged, she found her career stalling as critics saw a little too much aridity in her desert scenes. As singular and spiky as some of her floral creations, O’Keeffe “approached the commission with deep curiosity and arch amusement,” Papanikolas said at a press luncheon at the Grand Hyatt New York replete with leis flown in that day from Hawaii Tourism United States. “She agreed to it only if she could go wherever she wanted.”

Harold Stein. Georgia O’Keeffe in Hawaii, 1939. Gelatin silver print, 5 x 4-1/2 in. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation. © Estate of Harold Stein.

Departing from Grand Central Terminal, O’Keeffe headed west, boarding the SS Lurline for the tropical paradise and generating headlines that described her as “woman painter.” (This would’ve certainly irked O’Keeffe as she wanted to be known only as an artist.)

Once in the Islands, the painter immersed herself in Hawaii, Kauai, Maui and Oahu for nine weeks. The more than 20 paintings that resulted are both different from her other works and comfortingly familiar. Her “Waterfall, No. I, Īao Valley, Maui,” a 1939 oil on canvas with deeply dramatic, vertical folds of verdure, is a complement to the placid horizontal greenery of “Lake George at Early Moonrise” (1930), an oil and gouache on canvas at Purchase College’s Neuberger Museum of Art. Her paintings of lava-laced shorelines — the crusty black shapes contrasting with the cerulean serenity of the sea — are reminiscent of Claude Monet’s paintings of Étretat. And her explosive florals (“Hibiscus with Plumeria,” “Pineapple Bud”) — with their deep creases and pearly centers — well, they’re as iconic as they are erotic, although O’Keeffe despised Freudian interpretations of her work. 

O’Keeffe may have left the mainland, but as her Hawaiian work luxuriantly displays, she remained resolutely herself. 

The New York Botanical Garden’s annual “Orchid Show” takes place March 3 through April 22, this year featuring installations by floral artist Daniel Ost. Then save the weekend of May 4 through 6 for NYBG’s “Garden Art & Antiques Fair,” which actually begins with a preview party May 3. Once again it will feature plants, antiques and art. New for 2018, experts take the stage for topics ranging from interior to floral design. For more, visit nybg.org

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