The lead-up to the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center's newest show, Eloquent Objects: Georgia O'Keeffe and Still-Life Art in New Mexico, has been huge. The FAC dubbed 2015 the Year of O'Keeffe — with themed events, classes and performances. And while the O'Keeffe pieces will be sure to wow, the arts center itself may be the real star of the show.
That's because the exhibit capitalizes on its strengths, and seeing the works out in full force is a thing of beauty. What the FAC has arranged in its own permanent galleries downstairs — a sprawling but cohesive arrangement with tangents into pottery, altar screens and modern glass work contextualizing the traveling exhibit upstairs — merits its own tour schedule. With all its powers combined, Eloquent Objects is expansive and awesome.
O'Keeffe, of course, leads the charge. Her iconic image — the near-centenarian with white hair and dark dresses roaming over lonely bluffs and arroyos — gained widespread acclaim thanks to documentaries aired later in her life and large-scale retrospectives that established her as a household name and a formidable figure in modern American art. Yet it can be difficult to identify what it is about her artwork that was so modern, especially with what some feel is — ahem — pedestrian subject matter. But Eloquent Objects makes the connection, illustrating the works of this conversive group of artists who settled (some temporarily, some permanently) in New Mexico during the first half of the 20th century.
Artists in this show use the still-life stage to pull away from straight representation and indulge in varying styles. New Mexico's naturally abstract landscapes, echoed in the geometric motifs of the native peoples, were easy to reflect and play with in a composition. Its clear light amplified color; its deserts inspired a spartan aesthetic. It was ripe for experimenting artists, and O'Keeffe found her calling there. Ever the intuitive artist, she was deeply enriched by the spectacle of the land around her. In a 1929 letter to her husband, noted photographer Alfred Stieglitz, she wrote, "I seem to be hunting for something of myself out there. Something in myself that will give me a symbol for all of this — a symbol for the sense of life I get out here."
Frankly, there's a high incidence of Southwestern art fatigue around here, but Eloquent Objects tackles the issue head-on and succeeds in illustrating a tradition that, while familiar, has had much greater influence and is far more diverse than we realized. And surprising. The trifecta of Native American, Hispanic colonialism and Anglo cultures is expertly demonstrated, beginning in 16th-century Spain and concluding a few weeks ago.
It starts in the here and now with an installation from local artist Karen Khoury lining the glass corridor leading to the galleries. "She's doing this piece in response to the Eloquent Objects show," says museum director Blake Milteer, "[creating] very intimate, little, very delicate and beautiful pieces of abstraction. But they often feel like not paintings on the wall, but objects on the wall, because she works with that sort of dried and peeled and folded paint often."
Eloquent Objects serves to pinpoint the period of time when art shifted most dramatically from representative to abstract, organized thematically across 47 pieces from 26 artists — including Marsden Hartley, Barbara Latham, Victor Higgins and Joseph Henry Sharp — who found great inspiration in New Mexico's colors, shapes and cultures.
O'Keeffe, for her part, reduced her subjects to their essential forms and colors, working to simultaneously express her experience viewing the object and to focus her portrayal of it through formalism — the purely visual aspects.
(So you can ditch that part about the flowers being vaginas. Personal interpretation, of course, is fine, but O'Keeffe rejected any and all erotic connotations in her work.)
Milteer calls O'Keeffe the "Mother of Modernism" for these reasons. If you still don't see it, Milteer offers this: Take the FAC's own "Dark Iris No. 1," and obscure part of the work with your hand at a safe distance. What was once plainly a flower now looks like a sensual warren of shapes and tone. "You cover up any little part of that, and the rest of it feels purely abstract," he says. "That's where there's some genius in the work."
He continues: "You often hear the rise of modernism as ... the road to flatness, and I think that's really descriptive of what you see in the paintings. ... Basically you go from depiction to suggestion."
From here, the FAC picks up with its holdings again, showing off a volume of Stieglitz's photographs and hand-written letters O'Keeffe exchanged in the late 1940s and early '50s with then-FAC director Mitchell Wilder, who tried to persuade her to lend works for a show.
Further on, with large thanks to the FAC's storied Taylor Museum Collection, are more examples from Eloquent Objects-like artists, as well as examples of the pots, textiles and kachinas depicted in their works. Alongside indigenous art, paintings, drawings, prints and photos illustrate the progression of art in the American West, starting with Spanish colonization: European religious works from the 16th and 17th centuries give way to the first generation of artists cataloguing the West — your Bierstadts and Morans — followed by interpretations by artists influenced by the European Impressionists, who give way to Catlin, Audubon and Remington, trailed by members of the Taos Art School and then onward to contemporary regionalist works by Pard Morrison and Sushe and Tracy Felix. Santos and bultos, made by artists still living and working today, round out the mix, which is sprinkled throughout with absolute gems, like the bust of a young Native American man done in charcoal by Edward Hopper.
"We saw this as a real opportunity to dig deep," Milteer says.