Tacoma Art Museum is starting to make good on its promise that the new Haub wing for Western American art will bring the venue to national prominence. The latest evidence is up on the walls right now: “Eloquent Objects,” a traveling show of 22 still-life paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe and 42 by her New Mexico contemporaries.
The O’Keeffe show is the kind of exhibit you usually have to travel somewhere else to see. But TAM is the only West Coast venue, and its big Weyerhaeuser gallery provides a dramatic, architectural setting for this thoughtful exploration of Southwest still-life art.
Part of what makes “Eloquent Objects” so compelling is that it takes O’Keeffe — one of America’s greatest 20th-century painters — out of her place in art history and puts her squarely where she was in real life: one of many notable artists from the 1920s to the 1940s who shuttled between the modernist influences of Europe and New York and the rarified landscape and art-colony ideals of New Mexico.
Curator Charles Eldredge and in-house curator Margaret Bullock have grouped works to show O’Keeffe in the context of what everyone else was doing and to highlight her extraordinary vision. Divided thematically into subject material (bones, flowers, artifacts, architecture) and physically by gray-black walls that pull out shadows within the paintings and give the room its own stark architecture, the show offers many different ways of seeing O’Keeffe.
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First, there’s the blockbuster, stand-in-awe view. Once you’ve entered the gallery, Bullock wants you to go around to the right to take in all the pre-O’Keeffe fruit bowls that set up the genre for the 20th century — but most people will glimpse her astounding “Jimson Weed” in the flower section, and be drawn to it like moths to a light. Flanked by a wall of staid, figurative flower arrangements by traditionalists like Catharine Critcher and Victor Higgins, O’Keeffe’s monumental 1936 three-flower portrait (12 by 14 feet) sings like an opera. Delicate lavender-white petals, blue-green leaves and yellow-haloed stamens curl endlessly, an eruption of form filling the frame with joyous detail. Next to it, the artist’s smaller “Coxcomb” of 1931 speaks to the ruffled naturalism of earlier painters, though with the same intensity of vision as her larger piece.
Then there’s the experience of seeing an entire wall of O’Keeffe, something you’d usually have to travel to Santa Fe to do. Sadly, the “Bones Wall” at the opposite end of the gallery from the flowers is blocked from view by the divider walls — a missed opportunity for both vista and dialogue. But even without the comparison, it’s a stunning experience. Works like “Deer Horns,” “Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettia” and “Red Hill and White Shell” float dreamily on the white walls just below eye-level, a panorama of delicate pink shading, translucent blue sky and intense luminosity. Her horizons stretch through them all, dwarfed into surreality by their objects and echoed by the knife-thin edge of bone and shell. Intriguingly, “Peace” by O’Keeffe’s friend Rebecca Salsbury James joins them, a skillful reverse painting of shell on glass with just as much color subtlety as the more famous artist.
The east and west walls offer a view of O’Keeffe as just one of the many artists who flocked to New Mexico in the early 20th century, drawn by the new railroad as well as light, landscape and culture. Here, Eldredge chooses works that throw O’Keeffe’s minimalist abstraction into the spotlight. Along the “Artifacts” wall, in deep, rich palettes, we see Joseph Henry Sharp throwing together a Crow papoose and Pueblo rain god figurines as if in dialogue; a bleeding Mexican crucifix against a Native American blanket background by Eliseo Rodriguez; print scenes full of tiny Hopi kachinas by Gustave Baumann (plus an original woodcut, the carving incredibly detailed). O’Keeffe’s “Wooden Virgin” of 1929 stands out like an icon, her Madonna hovering in a stylized white cloud and deep green cape, gazing sadly to the side. Even here, the artist’s signature shimmer backlights the saint, just as it does the giant bones nearby.
Further down the wall, Eldredge plays with the idea of architecture as still life: Ward Lockwood’s bright-yellow general store, with the repetition of cans, boxes and floorboards far more important than the people inside; the quiet rooms by Howard Schleeter and Henry Salloch. Again, O’Keeffe sees things differently, painting the outside of her adobe house or nearby church with shape as the main focus, reducing shadows to pure line or color field. It’s the logical extension of the Cezanne-style compaction of perspective that her contemporaries are playing with, pushed to the visual limit.
The only area that doesn’t gel in “Eloquent Objects” is the center. Divided into two “rooms” by the black walls, the works are categorized as abstract, but that definition is loose. O’Keeffe’s large “Black Door with Red,” a 1954 rectangular abstract in the style of Agnes Martin, pairs weirdly with Dorothy Morang’s neo-expressionist “Garden of Eden,” with its Freudian twirls of seedpod and ovaries. On the other side, the O’Keeffe bone paintings are not much more abstract than the ones on the Bones wall, while geometric abstracts by Emil Bisttram and Raymond Jonson offer a more unified insight into what the abstract artists were aiming at.
Don’t miss “Still Life in the Northwest,” a small but thoughtful show in the next gallery. Assembled by Bullock out of the museum’s own collections, it shows both what was going on in the Northwest while the Southwest artists were painting cow skulls and cacti, as well as the broader tradition of Northwest still life, from Morris Graves’ thickly tranquil autumn leaves to Ned Behnke’s exuberantly flashy lilies, a 1980s nod to O’Keeffe.
In the same gallery, you’ll find biographical media about O’Keeffe: photographs of her at her New Mexico ranch, and an O’Keeffe Museum video about her life and work, plus an interactive corner. And don’t forget TAM’s own O’Keeffe, “Pinons with Cedar,” part of the new Haub collection and on view in that wing.
It’s not often that Tacoma gets an artist of this stature in our museums, and even more rare that it is such an expansive selection of work and era. Kudos to TAM for bringing such an intelligent take on a blockbuster show.