Bummer: Visit to O’Keefe’s Museum

Disappointment is the theme for today. As in, I was disappointed with my trip to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. Also, I was concerned about my sick grandfather, and disappointed that my mother was unable to join us because she had gone to be with him.

Here is what I knew about O’Keefe prior to my visit: She’s painted some flowers. Some people think they look like vaginas. She’s painted some bones, some of them with flowers. I’d seen one of her rather abstract paintings at the MFAH in Houston, and my husband owns an old poster of a black pansy. She lived in New Mexico, at least for a while. On the television show Breaking Bad, Jesse and his girlfriend talk about having visited the Georgia O’Keefe Museum. The two had very different views on O’Keefe’s work:

When my family decided to vacation in Santa Fe, I announced that my only required activity for the week was that I wanted to go to the O’Keefe museum. Preferably without children.

If only that was all I had wanted, I could proclaim that I got everything I desired. But, really, I wanted more. I wanted to get to understand the artist, what made her tick, why she painted what she did, and I wanted to fall in love with her work in general, and maybe a few pieces specifically. I learned there was a docent-led tour at a time I could attend, and I went. Only, my phone died on the way, killing my navigation app, and then I couldn’t find the museum quickly enough before the tour was supposed to start, and I was already having a bad morning and worried about my grandfather, so I gave up, sobbing, and returned to our accommodations. Later I made arrangements to catch the next tour.

The Georgia O’Keefe Museum is not responsible for my phone dying. The odd cell phone service and constant searching for a new signal, combined with a charger cord that is bent and likes to fall out are to blame for that. But once I finally got there and paid my $12 entrance fee, I was disappointed again.

Georgia O'Keefe Museum

Too many people showed up for the guided tour, so instead of spending our time walking around and talking about paintings in the flesh, they led us into the largest gallery room, seated us on little stools, and the docent spoke using an iPad and some laminated letter sized print outs of O’Keefe’s work to talk. The docent was engaging and knowledgeable—but when you aren’t standing in front of a work, when you are looking at a tiny computer screen or an 8.5×11 print crowded around by over two dozen people, you don’t see the same things, and I can’t help but think that you don’t talk about the same things, either.

I can read Wikipedia articles. I can find images by O’Keefe online. I want the docent to tell me what is special about this particular painting right in front of me, what are its qualities that make it worth spending time with, how does it fit into the artists oeuvre as a whole. Why does this painting succeed where other paintings of similar subjects don’t. I want deep information.

Disappointed by the huge group “tour”, where it felt awkward to ask questions, and there wasn’t a near enough painting in front of me to inspire good questions anyway, I hoped to go find the images she had shared and look at them, have a reaction, and read the gallery plaques. Some of them I found, only, there wasn’t much info on the plaques.

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So I wandered around, hoping that just going through the whole museum I would get a sense of O’Keefe’s work and style and variation just by seeing such a large quantity of her works in one place. The docent (who did a good job, it is all the other circumstances that worked against her) had mentioned that O’Keefe had made over 3,000 works in her long lifetime, and that this particular museum owned half of them. I knew they wouldn’t have 1,500 on display all at once, but man, I would have liked more than they had. Half the things hanging on the wall weren’t even her paintings. And while I like additional info, like photographs of the artist working, I like best when they really inform the paintings in the room. A recent summer photograph of a landscape near her former winter home, when she painted rather abstracted versions of it only when the trees were leafless doesn’t help me understand her work any better.

Here is what I did like:

I learned that she started painting very young, and after attending various art schools and getting a good grasp on realism, decided she didn’t have anything to add to the world of realistic painting, and gave it up. Later, Arthur Wesley Dow  told Georgia to “fill the canvas with something you love” (that’s my paraphrase—I can’t recall or find the precise quote). Then she changed her approach and began painting flowers that were so large they didn’t fit on her canvas—the images were magnified and cropped much like in photography. Only a small percentage of O’Keefe’s work was of flowers, but those were the ones that fared best commercially.

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O’Keefe objected to the comparisons of her work to parts of the female anatomy, but because her photographer lover Alfred Stieglitz  had plastered her naked body all over a gallery show prior to the art world being introduced to O’Keefe’s paintings, when they did see her own work, in the words of our docent “they knew her body before they knew her body of work.” I can just imagine the thought process of the art critics: “Oh, look!  A big flower. Who painted it? Oh, her? I’ve seen a picture of her foo-fuh. Hey! It kinda looks like a foo-fuh!” (Quaint euphemism courtesy of my friend, D.)

Here are some of the works I did like:

Perhaps I will revisit Miss Georgia and her work (though probably not her museum). But this week, there was not time to supplement my gallery tour with additional research and writing, or even color correcting of the pics I took. No, there were too many disappointments this week. We cut our vacation short to go be with my mom and grandfather, and just in time. Today I will attend my grandfather’s funeral.

Sometimes things just don’t go as we hoped.

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How has art disappointed you?

 

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2 thoughts on “Bummer: Visit to O’Keefe’s Museum

  1. Sad to hear the museum was a disappointment. I found the inspiration north of Santa Fe near Abiquiu where she lived and flourished more amazing. It’s hues and shadows of colour change with the time of day and the season of the year and the same backdrop provides a new canvas of light and this is where this artist flourished. Life also brings new and varying perspectives as one views what is before us in a different light. So sad too at the passing of “Pops”…. May you find light and joy in your own canvas of life and know that even this reflection was insightful to those of us who love art, O’Keefe, and you!

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    • Thanks, Dad. If I do ever head that way, I’d be glad to visit O’Keefe’s studio at Abiquiu. I’ll probably do more advance research to help make it more meaningful. I’m sad Pops is gone, and almost left that news out of this post, but my sadness about him and disappointment about the museum bled into each other the day I visited and as I was writing. I think sharing how life affects our perception of art or a museum is honest and worth considering. We all view things differently because we all have different experiences.

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