Denver’s Museum of Contemporary art isn’t the kind of institution that borrows a lot of work from other museums. It focuses on “the new” and populates its exhibitions with art that often comes directly from artists themselves or from local collectors or galleries. Sometimes, artists create things right there in the museum, in the form of site-specific installations meant to make shows vibrant and of-the-moment.
The current “Aftereffect: O’Keeffe and Contemporary Painting” shakes that up in bold ways. For a change, the museum has imported actual masterworks into its galleries, taking loans of Georgia O’Keeffe paintings from places like the Corcoran Collection at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Weismann Art Museum in Minneapolis and the Denver Art Museum.
“Aftereffect” isn’t exactly an O’Keeffe show, even though it features a carefully chosen selection of her originals. Instead, the exhibit focuses on 12 current painters who have been influenced by O’Keeffe’s style. The comparison is enlightening at both ends: It offers a well-grounded way to see emerging work as well as a fresh chance to revisit O’Keeffe’s big ideas.
It’s an achievement that co-curators Elissa Auther and Emily Joyce have, in some ways, made O’Keeffe a supporting player here. The painter, who was born in 1887 and died in 1986, was a superstar of 20th-century art, one of the greatest American artists to ever pick up a brush, and her personality was even bigger. O’Keeffe was photographed, quoted, revered. Her fashion, an indigenous-inspired desert chic, was copied, and her rural lifestyle in northern New Mexico redefined what it meant to be Southwestern. A generation of admirers moved to the region just to be close to the textures and colors of the arid land depicted romantically — and so sensually — by O’Keeffe.
But Auther and Joyce stay reverently on-mission throughout this entertaining exhibit, letting the spotlight shine on the living artists who carry on in the spirit of O’Keeffe, often taking it far into the stratosphere of contemporary painting. And they do it by avoiding the cliches that trap O’Keeffe in Santa Fe iconography. Don’t expect to see a lot of antlers and cactus flowers at the MCA.
Instead, the show takes inspiration from the 2009 landmark exhibition “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art. That exhibit drilled down on O’Keeffe’s talents as an abstractionist, showing how her particular style made her an equal, yet distinct, player in the dominant art trend of her era.
That allows them to tread down a number of paths, some obvious and some quite surprising.
Chief among them: Joyce’s own work, which is included in the lineup. As a painter, Joyce has her own way of seeing the world, and it’s full of strict geometry — squares and triangles, etc. She uses pure and bright acrylic reds, blues and yellows to shape her images. A casual viewer might call her a pop artist or note the similarity of her concentric, target-like circles to the one that Jasper Johns famously painted.
But, no. Joyce traces her lineage back to O’Keeffe, who often employed sharp, non-overlapping fields of color to her canvases, separating them with distinct borders. Need clarification on that? Just take a look at O’Keefe’s painting, “A Fragment of the Ranchos de Taos Church,” which hangs on an adjacent wall. O’Keeffe maintains critical lines between the blue of the sky and the white of the church walls. In accompanying wall text, Joyce explains that she sees a rhythm to the way the painting unfolds, capturing “the beat or the pulse of the things of the world.” She emulates it.
There are other examples showing how painters borrow O’Keeffe’s earthy, personalized way of abstracting flowers, fruits and vernacular architecture that aimed to capture how the artist felt things as much as how she saw them.
Denver painter Gretchen Marie Schaefer is represented with a series of colored-pencil drawings of individual rocks that call to mind O’Keefe’s method of zeroing in on specific bones or leaves. Similar to O’Keeffe, Schaefer’s pieces are less concerned with rendering the specific detail and scale of the rocks, and focus instead on freezing their organic essence. They have unique, soulful personalities.
“By visually isolating it and enlarging it, the rock becomes very special and celebrated,” Schaefer explains in her statement.
Less direct influences are seen in work by artist Mary Hellman, whose acrylic “road paintings” capture isolated snapshots of lonely highways with the yellow and white lines that designate traffic lanes front and center. Like O’Keeffe, she takes a wide-eyed view of Western terrain.
Or there’s the zigzag lines in the highly patterned, geometric paintings of Melissa Thorne, who actually pulled her hues from the colors of the sand, plants and sky of New Mexico during a residency there. There’s no recognizable imagery in the work — they’re purely abstract — but the pieces beg the question: Can colors alone, and the way we see them in the lights of specific region, instill a sense of place in painting? It’s very O’Keeffe to suggest that they can, and very astute of the curators to see the “Aftereffect” links in the work.
And because no exhibition that references O’Keeffe can avoid addressing the eroticism in her oeuvre — people love to see body parts in the folds of her flowers and the elongated shapes of her endives, despite O’Keeffe’s insistence that they’re not there — the curators present a series of abstract, mixed-media wall works from artist Loie Hollowell. They are equally full of curves and waves and folds and, because of that, carnal suggestion.
Are the sensual inferences people might take from Hollowell’s work real or imagined? She doesn’t say specifically in her statement, though she does point out that her complex images “start from my own body — specifically my sexual body.”
“Aftereffect” is fueled by mysteries like that, by unsolved puzzles and unproven assumptions. The curators hypothesize a solid association between these contemporary artists and O’Keeffe just by including them in the exhibit, but they provide only hints at the connections, and don’t offer them as concrete fact. Instead, the viewer gets to decide how deep the links go based on quotes supplied by each artist and what they see with their own eyes. This exhibition isn’t huge, but it demands some time to fully appreciate.
It’s time well-spent in an exhibition that’s well-researched and certainly a departure from the MCA’s usual fare.
“Aftereffect: O’Keeffe and Contemporary Painting” continues through May 26 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver, 1485 Delgany St. Info: 303-298-7554 or mcadenver.org. The MCA is free for visitors 18 and under.