Visual Arts

Heard Museum's Georgia O'Keeffe Exhibit Misses the Native Connection

Just because an artist works in abstraction does not mean an exhibition of that artist's work should follow suit. Case in point: "Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land," currently on view at the Heard Museum.

The biographically driven exhibition, which includes 53 works by the artist, comes to Phoenix by way of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. Divided into three subjects, the show purportedly explores how O'Keeffe was inspired by New Mexico and Southweste culture between 1929 and 1953.

Of particular interest to the Heard are O'Keeffe's studies of katsina tithu (kachina dolls), the painted wooden representations of spirit beings carved by Native American artists for use in select Hopi and Zuni ceremonies. The Heard's iteration of the show includes a collection of katsina dolls, not included in all occurrences of the exhibition, as well as a series of quotations from consulting katsina expert Alph H. Secakuku, effectively refocusing viewers' attention on the ties between O'Keeffe and Hopi/Pueblo culture.

Well, that was the goal, anyway.

Apart from a short video about O'Keeffe's affinity for New Mexico, the first floor of the exhibit is wholly dedicated to katsina tithu. O'Keeffe's paintings and drawings of katsina dolls line the walls of the room, with examples of real katsina tithu grouped in a display in the middle of the room. But even after walking around the room several times, it felt impossible to bridge the metaphorical (and physical) distance between the katsina tithu figures and O'Keeffe's renderings of the figures. The examples of real katsina dolls are not particularly edifying in terms of O'Keeffe's work, which seems (and arguably is) completely divorced from actual Hopi tradition.

O'Keeffe's artwork itself progresses from realistic studies of katsina dolls to more abstract interpretations of the subject, which is interesting, especially in the context of her larger body of work as an artist.

Wall text, with commentary from Hopi artist Ramona Sakiestewa, reads: "O'Keeffe titles her work with her own associations, like 'Kachina with Horns from Back' or 'Paul's Kachina' or 'Blue-Headed Indian Doll,' which takes them out of the realm of collecting or ethnography. She studies them in no other way than for her own art-making."

Though I happen to agree with Sakiestewa's interpretation, the statement completely undermines the central conceit of this portion of the exhibit — that O'Keeffe was interested in Hopi/Pueblo culture. The drawings and paintings seem much more like the work of an artist interested in the objectness of the doll itself, completely divorcing the figure from its cultural and spiritual significance.

Because I am no expert in native iconography and the appropriations thereof, I am uncertain where this leaves O'Keeffe's work in terms of political correctness. The excellent exhibition catalog accompanying "Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico" offers multiple perspectives on this kind of issue, but I wish the curators could have found a way to bring these discussions to bear within the exhibition itself.

The first floor also includes a small selection of modern riffs on katsina tithu by Sakiestewa and Tewa-Hopi artist Dan Namingha. Sakiestewa's wool tapestries and drawings nicely echo O'Keeffe's movements toward the nonrepresentational, but the artwork of both artists is placed around the room seemingly at random, making associations between these pieces and O'Keeffe's work tenuous (not unlike the connections with the katsina dolls themselves).

Though I was happy to see representations of katsina tithu created by Native artists, these pieces didn't feel fully integrated into the exhibition. Instead, they only break up the timeline of O'Keeffe's life that serves as the guiding organizational structure in the exhibition.

The work on the second floor, which addresses the remaining two themes of architecture and the land, is much more straightforward, but the connection to Native culture is dropped almost completely. Ascending the stairs is like walking into a completely new exhibition that hardly belongs in the Heard Museum at all.

Still, some of my favorite work was located in this portion of the show. In Rust Red Hills (1930), O'Keeffe makes use of lush purples and burgundies to capture a set of rolling hills in New Mexico. In Ghost Ranch Landscape (1936), her brushwork takes what would be a fairly typical desert landscape painting to a completely different level.

In a different context, this show might get a five-star review, but the Heard's mission to showcase O'Keeffe's ties to native culture fell short, ultimately causing the exhibition as a whole to come across as disjointed and difficult to follow. If you do go to see the exhibition, make some time to take a look at the show catalog to gain some much-needed perspective on how O'Keeffe's work fits in with Southwest modernist traditions and representations of Native culture.

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Katrina Montgomery