Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis
New York Botanical Garden
2900 Southern Boulevard
Bronx, New York 10458-5126
Georgia O’Keeffe’s Garden of Delights at the NYBG
Spring has truly arrived at the New York Botanical Garden (formally Bronx Botanical Garden). Set into the manicured lawns and greenways, great flowering trees add color to the rich verdure perennials outlined against the unpolluted azure blue sky. Early flowering cherry blossoms have had their brief day in the sun and now lay like a rose colored carpet at the base of the trees that birthed them. Lining the walking paths are buds bursting into colorful yellow daffodil and pink peony blossoms wafting floral scents into the breeze.
Inside the classical crystal palace of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a Hawaiian tropical garden of over 300 types of plants has been created by plant designer Francisca Coelho, to evoke the landscape that inspired renowned artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) to expand her personal and artistic horizons.
On display in the Leon Levy Visitor Center and along the Garden Way are idealized metallic creations of the native plants that inspired O’Keeffe by contemporary Hawaiian-Chinese sculptor Mark Chai. The graphic sculptures are illuminated at night to stunning effect for the many evening events scheduled. Beginning in June, a wide variety of Hawaiian plants will be displayed outside in the Conservatory Courtyards, where visitors can see growing pineapples, papaya, sugarcane and bananas, along with hibiscus, gardenia, and bougainvillea. While a short walk or tram ride away, on the 6th floor of the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Art Gallery, is the featured collection of artwork O’Keeffe produced during her stay in Hawaii.
In 1939 O’Keeffe was regarded as one of the greatest living American artists and commercial assignments were felt to be far below her elevated status in the art world. But an enterprising advertising agency convinced her to accept a commission to journey to Hawai’i and provide two paintings for a prominent Hawaiian pineapple company. Not only were commercial commissions felt to be beneath her, she was wary of traveling so far to a remote U.S. territory, which at that time, very little was known about. She finally agreed after being assured the choice of subject would be hers alone and she was offered a first class, all expense paid, three month trip. So at the age of 51 she undertook a journey that transformed her sense of adventure and ultimately opened avenues of exploration previously undreamt of by her.
O’Keeffe ended up staying on Hawai’i nine weeks and visited the islands of O’ahu, Maui, Kaua’i and the Big Island. And as she traveled from place to place her admiration for the diverse topography, exotic flora and dramatic seascapes grew into a body of 20 paintings brought together in this exhibit for the first time since 1940. Georgia O’Keeffe was considered an American modernist, grounded in the traditional 19th century Hudson River School of art. Her work often consisted of depicting nature’s perfect bounty in local landscapes, plants and flowers, and always from an intimate perspective with her subject matter. Her use of bold colors and exquisite detail was almost as if she was viewing her object through a zoom lens zeroing in on what was essential or intrinsic to the item at hand.
All through her travels she documented what she saw and felt in letters to her husband, famed photographer Alfred Stieglitz, back in their home in New York City. That descriptive narrative is part of the exhibition in the 4th floor Britton Rotunda at the Library Art Gallery in the form of a short film entitled Off in the Far Away Somewhere: Georgia O’Keeffe’s Letters from Hawai’i and narrated to dramatic effect by well-known actor Sigourney Weaver. To the left of the Rotunda is the Britton Gallery which features a beautifully designed and informative history of the islands unique flora entitled Flora Hawaiiensis: Plants of Hawai’i. Included are both the native plants and those brought almost 1,000 years ago, by the Polynesians that settled the Hawaiian Islands.
The Ross Gallery on the 1st floor displays a map outlining O’Keeffe’s island-hopping journey along with B/W pictures showing what she would have encountered back in the day. Of course her journey was not all work and no play since as one of the most famous artists of her time, her presence was in demand and she was wined and dined by the island’s elites.
The story takes a humorous (sic) turn when once back home in New York City she presented her two paintings to be used by the advertising company for their Hawaiian Pineapple client. One was Heliconia; erroneously entitled Crab’s Claw Ginger that was actually a Lobster Claw, and the other was a Papaya fruit plant… an obvious faux pas promoting a competitive fruit. In order to salvage the ad campaign a pineapple plant was shipped all the way from Hawaii to New York at considerable expense for O’Keeffe to reconsider her unfortunate decision. After some prodding she relented and the resulting painting with the unique Georgia O’Keeffe perspective of the Pineapple Bud used in the campaign.
The body of work O’Keeffe’s produced in Hawai’i was exhibited in the Alfred Stieglitz gallery “An American Place” in 1940 to critical acclaim and helped to generate interest in Hawai’i which became the 50th state in August 1959.
The exhibit will be on view from May 19 through October 28, 2018 and consists of the art exhibit in the LluEsther T. Mertz Library Art Gallery building supported by the flower show in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory currated by art historian Theresa Papanikolas, Ph.D., Deputy Director of Art & Programs and Curator of European and American Art at the Honolulu Museum of Art; along with ongoing demonstrations and programs in celebration of Hawaiian culture. Performances, events and activities will continue throughout the exhibition. An impressive list of corporate and private sponsors made this event possible, for a complete listing and for event details visit www.nybg.org
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