New York Botanical Garden Hosts O’Keeffe Show

The majestic LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where O'Keeffe's Hawaii paintings are on exhibit. Faye Wolfe photos.
The majestic LuEsther T. Mertz Library, where O’Keeffe’s Hawaii paintings are on exhibit. Faye Wolfe photos.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Visions of Hawaii at the New York Botanical Garden

By Faye Wolfe

A lei-making demonstration at the Botanical Garden.
A lei-making demonstration at the Botanical Garden.

In the winter of 1939, Georgia O’Keeffe spent nearly ten weeks in what she called the “dream world” of Hawaii. Through October 28, visitors to the New York Botanical Garden can get a taste of that world—and the paintings it inspired—at the exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii.

O'Keeffe on the rocks in Hawai'i © Estate of Harold Stein
O’Keeffe on the rocks in Hawai’i © Estate of Harold Stein

To get to the islands, O’Keeffe traveled for a week by train and ocean liner, but if you’re visiting New York City this summer, a Metro-North train ride will get you to the NYBG in just 20 minutes from Grand Central.

In the heat of the summer, the garden’s green expanses offer an especially refreshing respite from city streets.

Note: For me, the journey there was a longer but very pleasurable. I walked(!) to the platform in Northampton, Massachusetts, boarded the Amtrak Vermonter, crossed and recrossed the Connecticut River, and like my train, rolled south through Connecticut, and into Penn Station four hours or so later.

A Multifaceted Exhibition

Once you’re at the botanical garden, you can spend the better part of a day exploring this multifaceted exhibition. In the spectacular Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, an exquisitely arranged array of flora transports you to the Pacific isles O’Keeffe described in glowing terms, such as beautiful, lovely, handsome, and remarkable.

Over at the LuEsther T. Mertz Library Art Gallery are the elegant paintings that emerged from O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian sojourn.

"Pineapple Bud" (© 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society, New York)
“Pineapple Bud” (© 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society, New York)

Among the programs accompanying the show, “Aloha Nights,” held on several summers Saturday evenings, is a standout. In addition to offering after-hours admission to the exhibition, Aloha Nights feature hula classes, lei-making demonstrations, and the chance to sip specialty cocktails under the stars. Just being able to stroll in the garden as the sun sets and the stars come out is worth the cost of a ticket.

On the Dole

Mention O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian paintings to someone, and you may be met with a look of bewilderment. The artist is famous for her paintings of the Southwest. But Hawaii?

By 1939, the 51-year-old O’Keeffe was a celebrity. Her paintings regularly sold for thousands of dollars; in 1927, a French collector had bought six panels of calla lilies for $25,000, the equivalent of about $360,000 today. The Whitney Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and others had acquired works for their collections.

Some years her annual show at Stieglitz’s An American Place attracted thousands of visitors. Critics took her art seriously and usually gave it rave reviews, although their interpretations of its meaning sometimes caused her to be “full of furies.” (She used to say, “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.”)

Because of her fame, the Dole Pineapple Company offered O’Keeffe an all-expenses-paid trip to Hawaii in return for two paintings that could be used in advertisements.

Aloha! Hula lessons on the NYBG lawn.
Aloha! Hula lessons on the NYBG lawn.
Waterfall, No. I, ‘Īao Valley, Maui, 1939 (© 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum :Artists Rights Society, NewYork)
Waterfall, No. I, ‘Īao Valley, Maui, 1939 (© 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum :Artists Rights Society, NewYork)

After looking over some travel brochures, O’Keeffe accepted the offer, and in February 1939, she set off in search of new subjects to paint and possibly relief from the cold, gray New York winters. 

Disembarking at Honolulu from the Lurline, O’Keeffe embarked on an adventure that took her all around the islands. She was immediately bedecked with “flower necklaces,” as she called leis, and feted from the moment she came ashore by “the business men of the town that run the boats and airplanes and sugar and whatnot—and their wives,” in her words.  But she also found the time, made time, to explore, paint—and try sushi.

O’Keeffe Gets Around

The venturesome artist traveled to Hilo, Kaua’i, Hana, Oahu, and other places, at a time when Hawaii was still relatively undeveloped as a tourist destination. She enjoyed touring a sugar cane processing plant, seeing Polynesian art in the Bishop Museum, and being entertained at a club by a native Hawaiian schoolteacher who moonlighted as a hula dancer.

But not surprisingly, given the subject matter she gravitated to, she was most taken with the islands’ natural wonders, with the exception of the seething Kilauea Crater.

“I don’t like steam coming up of the earth,” she said. (Kilauea, incidentally, is the volcano that has been erupting for the last couple of months of 2018.) A more typical reaction of hers to the landscape: “The fields and hills and ocean and near islands all floated out in the clouds like a fairy story.”

An O'Keeffian flower
An O’Keeffian flower

Stop to Smell the Plumeria and the Poetry

Hawaii’s “wow!” factor is in full bloom in the NYBG conservatory. Home to plants from around the world, the impressive Victorian-style greenhouse with 11 galleries, including the 90-foot dome, merits a visit anytime.

For this exhibition, it has been turned into a showcase for plants that are either native to Hawaii or were introduced by settlers over the past 1,500 years.

A dreamy, deliciously scented cascade of creamy Brugmansiaa, or “angel’s trumpets,” greets you as you enter a long gallery off the rotunda. More fragrant flowers, such as gardenias and plumeria, are interspersed with crazy-colorful crotons, ferns, and palms along the gallery walkway that leads to a hale, a pavilion with a thatched roof, in the next room.

The Poetry Tour

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If you head off the rotunda in the opposite direction, you can take the Poetry Tour: poems about Hawaii by W.S. Merwin and other contemporary poets are displayed amid bromeliads and orchids. Outside, still more Hawaiian flora is on view near rectangular pools where particolored koi meander.

Hawaii'an food and drink at the Botanical Gardens.
Hawaii’an food and drink at the Botanical Gardens.

It’s all magical and almost steals the show from O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian paintings on view in the neoclassical pile that is the LuEsther T. Mertz Library, a five-minute walk from the conservatory (or an even quicker ride if you hail one of the golf carts that ferry people about).

Paintings of Pineapples

Having seen the wondrous real things, you can understand why O’Keeffe struggled to render them on canvas.

“I painted again all day Saturday—and at night when I was through and put the painting away I wanted to cry I was so disgusted with it—even tho with my head I said to myself it is pretty good and I’ll offer it to the Pineapples,” she wrote Stieglitz from Hawaii.

The entrance to a world of plants.
The entrance to a world of plants.

Like many acclaimed artists, O’Keeffe held herself to nearly impossible standards. Yet that very frustration in part fueled her creativity.

She may have been ambivalent about the results of her painting efforts, but others were enraptured. About “Cup of Silver Ginger,” O’Keeffe wrote Stieglitz, “The maid loves it—she stands and stands and looks and looks at it.”

Viewing the spectacular flowers and plants in the gardens.
Viewing the spectacular flowers and plants in the gardens.

And to other mere mortals, such as this one, the show is full of wonders. Among the 20 artworks are paintings that have not been exhibited together in New York since their 1940 debut.

Fans of O’Keeffe’s sensuous, evocative style will not be disappointed. The art conjures up the essence of a tropical paradise.

“Waterfall, Iao Valley, Maui,” for instance, pulls your eye deep into the heart of its mysterious green forests. O’Keeffe did three versions, with and without mist but all full of movement. “White Bird of Paradise” encapsulates all that was alluring and alien about that exotic flower to O’Keeffe.

Heliconia, Crab’s Claw Ginger, 1939 (© 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum:Artists Rights Society, New York)
Heliconia, Crab’s Claw Ginger, 1939 (© 2018 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum: Artists Rights Society, New York)

“Heliconia, Crab’s Claw Ginger” is that much more marvelous after you have seen the plant in the flesh, so to speak, over in the greenhouses—ditto “Pineapple Bud.” These last two paintings are the ones that Dole ended up using in its ads.

Between the plants and the paintings, you are likely to step out from the exhibition feeling the way O’Keeffe’s Japanese driver did. On the road from Kona to Hilo, he told her, “You make me see things I never saw before—I wonder if they will be there tomorrow.”

The New York Botanical Garden’s exhibition Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii will be there through October 28, 2018.

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