“My painting is what I have to give back to the world for what the world gives to me.” (Georgia O’Keeffe, 1940)
Gallery 8 of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum has been transformed, now exploring O’Keeffe’s connections to The Natural World. O’Keeffe was deeply affected by elements from nature that surrounded her; we certainly know that she painted the details she observed in a flower, but she also collected other natural items such as rocks, shells, sun-bleached bones, and feathers. Items that she felt had personal connections to a place or time, or were of special meaning to her, were kept on display in locations of prominence in her homes such as windowsills and bookshelves. Friends who knew of her attraction to beautiful river rocks might pick them up on their own travels and supply them to her as gifts, thereby intermingling them amongst her own selections. Some of these natural materials eventually became highlights in her own works of fine art, as subjects of still life paintings or abstractions.
The Natural World has additionally shifted towards a hands-on approach to interpreting the Museum’s collections. In a grouping devoted to sea shells, the museum seeks to engage with O’Keeffe’s own tactile fascination with these objects. Though many of the shells that she kept in her personal collections were quite small, she often chose to play with scale, color, and abstraction in their final painted rendering. In this grouping, chosen directly from O’Keeffe’s own personal collections of sea shells, visitors may look closely at curious and unique boxes full of these natural objects, using a variety of handheld magnifiers. Archival images of O’Keeffe arranging these objects, paired with paintings and hand-written notes, give a peek into the artist’s working method.
In an exploration of the Museum’s holdings of the bones collected by O’Keeffe, paintings such as Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory (1938) has been reunited with the skull that was its inspiration (now identified as the skull of a Spanish goat). O’Keeffe was a frequent collector of bones found in the New Mexico desert. About this practice, she wrote:
“I have wanted to paint the desert and I haven’t known how. I always think that I cannot stay with it long enough. So I brought home the bleached bones as my symbols of the desert. To me they are as beautiful as anything I know. To me they are strangely more living than the animals walking around–hair, eyes and all with their tails switching. The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even though it is vast and empty and untouchable–and knows no kindness with all its beauty.” (1943)
Though at times the link between painting and natural object can be quite direct (such as the one-to-one comparison between a specific bone and painting), other objects that surrounded her were simply cause for inspiration. In the grouping of collected rocks, paintings such as Black Rock on Red (1971) and White Place – A Memory (1943) are displayed alongside touchable rocks from specific places that inspired her, as well as rocks from her personal collections.
Delving into O’Keeffe’s lesser known sculptural process, a grouping devoted to her sculpture Abstraction (1946) incorporates the small ram’s skull that inspired it. A 3D printed version of the ram’s horn allows guests to touch its curved form. Pieces of liftable cast bronze and aluminum accompany the final sculpture to give material context.
Designed for visitors of all ages, The Natural World explores the fascinating objects intrinsic to O’Keeffe’s life + art.