Georgia O’Keeffe: Color and Conservation

Georgia O’Keeffe. Black Mesa Landscape/Out Back of Marie’s II (1930). Gift of The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Excitement is building at the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) in Rochester for the October 1 opening  of Georgia O’Keeffe: Color and Conservation, a three-month exhibition, with Rochester being one of only three stops on a national tour. This exhibit of work by Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), a major figure in American art, is credited with being the first to focus on her painstaking choice of color, her studio methods and her involvement in conservation issues.

“One of the iconic figures in the history of American art,” is how MAG director Grant Holcomb describes O’Keeffe. “This particular exhibition reflects the depth and breadth of her career,” says Holcomb, referring to the 25 rarely seen oil paintings and two pastels by O’Keeffe which will be on view through December 31, 2006. These include landscapes, flower paintings, still lifes and abstractions. The MAG’s own painting, Jawbone and Fungus (1931) is among those on view. In Rochester, photographs of O’Keeffe will also be loaned from the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

MAG’s Marlene Hamann-Whitmor, curator of education, and Marie Via, director of exhibitions, had a sneak peak of the O’Keeffe exhibit when they traveled to Mississippi in spring 2006 to attend the opening at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson. “It’s always a pleasure to see (the art) with my own eyes.” says Hamann-Whitmor. “The colors, texture, scale and intensity don’t come through in photographs. Some large works seem more intimate and smaller works may have a large presence,” explains the educator. Seeing the works ahead of time helps her in planning related educational programs for both adults and children.

Via, on the other hand, looks at the art in terms of how it will fit into the Rochester museum’s galleries. “We take a lot of notes and measurements to pass along to the exhibit designer.” Via must also take into account the condition of certain paintings for shipping purposes.

“We get a lot done in a few days,” adds Marlene.

From Jackson, Mississippi, Georgia O’Keefe: Color and Conservation went west to the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, over the summer before arriving in Rochester this fall.

In discussing the focus of the exhibit, the MAG professionals explain that it is not about the life and times of O’Keeffe. Rather, it deals with the issue of conservation or the act of preserving a cultural property for the future. Director Holcomb describes O’Keefe’s interest in art conservation as “pioneering.” O’Keeffe thought a great deal about how her works would survive the test of time. By the mid-1940s, O’Keeffe had become involved with trying to maintain the original colors and surface qualities of her painting. “Her aim was to keep the paintings visually stable for as long as possible,” says Marlene, who adds that this is a relatively unknown aspect of the work of one of America’s best-known artists.

“It’s probably unusual for an artist to spend so much time and energy and for us to have documentation,” continues Marlene referring to 40 years of previously unpublished correspondence between the artist and conservator Caroline Keck. Over the years, O’Keeffe and Keck became friends and colleagues, and their correspondence has provided much information for the exhibition and related catalog.

Because the exhibition is not biographical, the photographs from the Eastman House “add human interest element,” explains Via. “We also like to collaborate with our sister institutions (in Rochester).”

The O’Keeffe exhibit is the subject of two special lectures by O’Keeffe experts. On Sunday, October 1 at 2 p.m., Sarah Whitaker Peters, a nationally known authority on O’Keeffe, co-author of the catalog for Color and Conservation and co-curator of the exhibition, will speak on “Drawing, Color and Photography.” She’ll examine O’Keeffe’s highly original use of multiple sources and her 35-year collaboration with gifted conservator Caroline Keck.

On Thursday, November 2 at 7 p.m., Judith C. Walsh, a former senior conservator at the National Gallery of Art, will discuss the conservation of O’Keeffe’s pastels. Walsh was recently appointed associate professor in paper conservation at Buffalo State College.

Both talks are free with gallery admission.

For information on other public programs and directions to the gallery, visit the website at www.mag. rochester.edu.


by Laurel C. Wemett
Laurel C. Wemett owns a gift shop named Cat’s in the Kitchen and lives in Canandaigua.