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Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit at NCMA brings new perspective, interactivity to her work

Georgia O'Keeffe Exhibit
This mural is outside the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit at the NCMA.

Georgia O’Keeffe trundles across the Santa Fe desert with an armful of cow bones back to her ranch house and her studio, where she will transplant a skull or vertebra into a painted sky so that it appears larger than a New Mexico mountain range.

Soft ambient music, images of the desert and O’Keeffe’s voice wash over the immersive video room at the North Carolina Museum of Art, making visitors feel as if they are walking in O’Keeffe’s shoes through the orange sand. 

Emily Kotecki, manager of interpretation at the NCMA, took a film crew to Santa Fe, N.M., the first week of July to shoot footage of the homes O’Keeffe previously lived in and the natural landscape she painted.

“So you feel like you’re in her studio, you feel like you’re on Ghost Ranch, you feel like you’re in the desert with her picking up bones,” Kotecki said. “And we wanted to really take people there because we’re in North Carolina, so how do we bring Santa Fe to them?”

In the interview, O’Keeffe said she searched for someone who could tell her how to paint a landscape, but she never found that person.

“They could tell me how to paint their landscape, but they couldn’t tell me how to paint mine,” she said.

The 20-square-foot immersive video room, which features 12 foot high, three-wall projection, is one of many interactive elements present in “The Beyond: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Art,” showing at the NCMA from Oct. 13 through Jan. 20. More than 35 of O’Keeffe’s paintings are presented alongside works by 20 emerging artists that conjure up the themes and ideas found in O’Keeffe’s work, providing a visual display of this artistic lineage. 

The NCMA is also hosting three artist weekends, during each of which one of the 20 contemporary artists will spend a weekend at the museum, running gallery talks, demonstrating in the galleries and leading workshops.

Anna Valdez, one of these artists, is a still-life painter who draws inspiration from O’Keeffe’s highly developed sense of observation. O’Keeffe laid much of the groundwork for other women artists and innovators who came after her, and it’s important that the exhibit shows the extent of her influence, Valdez said. 

“I’m hoping more museums will take these examples and apply them to their spaces because there are so many artists that are alive and living and creating and the only art that’s valid or worthy of an exhibition like this are not dead artists,” Valdez said. “It’s great to have them in conversation like this.”

O’Keeffe, one of the most iconic artists of the 20th century, is so integrated into the fabric of visual culture in America that it was important for the exhibit to trace the lineage of her artistic influence, said Linda Dougherty, chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the NCMA.

“Seeing O’Keeffe’s work from a new perspective and in relationship to contemporary artists … re-emphasizes the importance, innovation and radical nature of O’Keeffe’s work 100 years later,” she said.

The walls of the exhibit abound with massive white irises, purple petunias and yellow jonquils. O’Keeffe’s scenes of skyscrapers and surreal desert landscapes are interspersed with other monumental works by contemporary artists, exploring those same themes in various media.

“The Beyond” takes a very interactive approach to engaging viewers with artists' work. Interviews with all 20 contemporary artists featured in the show can be viewed on iPads and there is a place at the end of the exhibit where visitors can draw their own O’Keeffe-inspired works.

O’Keeffe was famously guarded in her personal life and reticent to talk to the press, Kotecki said, so the only audio she could find to use in the video room is an interview O’Keeffe consented to do in the last decade of her life, at age 90. In 1986, at the age of 98, O’Keeffe died at Ghost Ranch, her famous Santa Fe home, and her ashes were scattered over the land she had spent the last half a century painting.

“The Beyond,” painted in 1972, comes at the tail end of the exhibit and is the last unassisted painting O’Keeffe created. She lost her central vision the previous year, so this work was painted using only her peripheral sight. But even after her death some 30 years ago, her presence is still felt. By telling the story of O’Keeffe’s work and her unique vision of the world, Kotecki said the museum can tell the story of modern art.

“I think it’s really important to remind ourselves of where some of these really big, lasting ideas come from,” she said. “And some of the ideas we’re presenting in the show — abstracting an image, cropping an image so that you see a detail of it on a huge scale was so revolutionary at the time, but now it’s so commonplace, because of that influence, because O’Keeffe existed.”

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