Conversing with Georgia

‘Aftereffect’ explores the legacy of a classic artist through the work of modern painters

Georgia O’Keeffe, ‘Oak Leaves Pink and Grey’/Courtesy of MCA Denver

At first glance, the common thread between the artworks in Aftereffect is less than obvious. There are different mediums, subject matter and styles, from geometric patterns and realistic drawings to expressionist painting and still life. But these images and artists are all tied together by one person: Georgia O’Keeffe.

Aftereffect: O’Keeffe and Contemporary Painting features the work of O’Keeffe and modern-day artists inspired by her life and art. The exhibit blends together various artists’ works and juxtaposes them next to pieces from the artist’s repertoire to explore the parallels. The show displays some of the hallmarks of O’Keeffe’s work — soft shapes that suggest sensuality, her love of nature — and also highlights her lesser-known abstract and experimental stylings. 

The show was curated by Elissa Auther, from the Museum of Arts and Design in New York, and Los Angeles-based painter Emily Joyce, whose work is featured in Aftereffect. In planning the exhibit, the curators wanted to advance the narrative left behind by O’Keeffe’s work. To accomplish this, they veered away from creating a one-for-one matching game of classics with modern interpretations. 

Courtesy MCA Denver ‘Reclaimed Fuchsia,’ by Emily Joyce

“It’s not an exhibit where you’re going to see an O’Keeffe skull next to another painting of a skull. That’s not an interesting story to tell about her influence,” Joyce says. 

Instead, Auther and Joyce make the pieces interact with one another. Each example in the show takes details from O’Keefe’s life and works and puts them in new contexts. In written statements throughout Aftereffect, artists explain O’Keeffe’s influence on their art, which allows viewers the chance to dig deeper into O’Keeffe’s legacy. Instead of featuring a large selection of O’Keeffe’s work, only a handful of her paintings are scattered throughout the exhibit to highlight specific features. In utilizing this approach, Aftereffect provides new insights that might otherwise go unnoticed. 

“[The exhibit] brings out aspects of O’Keeffe’s work, very formal qualities of her paintings that might not matter as much to normal exhibition narratives,” Auther says. “But here it is front and center, and then here’s the voice of the contemporary artist responding to those formal innovations and hopefully that takes you somewhere new with what painters are doing today.” 

Auther and Joyce met several years ago at an art event and discovered a mutual love and respect for O’Keeffe. Auther, who was studying at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum at the time, was hesitant to reveal her affinity for O’Keeffe because of the artist’s questionable reputation in the art world. 

“O’Keeffe isn’t considered an important touchstone for contemporary art at all. … [There’s a] perception of her as a cliché painter or ‘the lady artist,’ or someone who is more associated with dorm room posters than contemporary art,” Auther says. 

“In her lifetime and beyond she was incredibly popular and that level of popularity doesn’t always serve an artist well,” she continues. “She was dismissed by painters of her generation for her popularity. They perceived her as overexposed.” 

But when Auther and Joyce discovered their shared admiration, they had a feeling they weren’t alone. For the next few years they looked for other artists who found inspiration in O’Keeffe’s work; the result is Aftereffect

In Aftereffect, the complexity and weight of O’Keeffe’s significance emerges. There’s a clear boundary-pushing aspect to her work, like her early adoption of abstraction and her willingness to break art rules, like using symmetry or elevating the seemingly mundane genre of still life. O’Keeffe bucked convention by removing herself from the art capitals of the world and carving out her own space in the desert of New Mexico. 

O’Keeffe’s range as an artist becomes clear when looking at the diverse artwork offered in Aftereffect. With the varying styles and interpretation, the audience might be hard pressed to find the link between O’Keeffe and a painting of a geometric pattern, for example. 

New York-based artist Melissa Thorne’s paintings feature soothing zigzags and crisscrosses, using mostly straight lines and similar repeating shapes. While a far cry from an O’Keeffe landscape, Thorne draws inspiration from O’Keeffe’s use of color, distillation of detail and seasonal themes. To capture the seasons of her neighboring Catskill Mountains, Thorne created a palate of over 500 colors. Her paintings capture the striations of rocks, the density of earth, and the lightness of a blue sky. And when blending these ideas together, Thorne creates a site-specific, abstract interpretation of her surroundings. 

Melissa Thorne/Courtesy of MCA Denver Melissa Thorne’s art takes a cue from the soft color schemes often employed by Georgia O’Keeffe.

“So even though the imagery is quite different, the method and way of working to get to the picture is where she’s finding her influence,” Joyce says. 

Some artists drew inspiration from the feelings prompted by O’Keeffe’s work. LA-based Mary Weatherford’s “La Niña” is a large-scale expressionist painting of black, purple, brown, green, gray, pink and blue brush strokes. Amid the chaotic markings is a red neon light. The piece mixes the natural aesthetic of a sky after a rainstorm with a sign from the human world — a combination similar to motifs O’Keeffe used in her own work. Weatherford was also drawn to the loneliness she saw in O’Keeffe’s paintings and experimented channeling that feeling into her own work. 

Mary Weatherford/MCA Denver Mary Weatherford’s “La Niña”

Outside of her art, O’Keeffe also left a lasting example with her lifestyle as an artist.

“She created her own way of making art in the world that made sense to her. She created that universe that was going to provide what she needed, rather than sticking around where it didn’t make sense for her,” Joyce says. “I think you see a lot of artists echoing that, finding a way of finding your own place geographically and artistically.” 

In Aftereffect, San Francisco artist Mary Heilmann displays paintings of the wide open road. She was drawn to O’Keeffe’s spirit and independence. As her statement reads in the exhibit, “O’Keeffe’s main identity was as a single person on her own, working in her studio. Out of that sensibility comes some really beautiful, contemplative painting, and she was a role model for me.” 

By combing through the artworks and artist statements, Aftereffect provides a glimpse into the artistic process. Every piece of art is an amalgamation of influences and personal style. By analyzing the elements that influence an artist, the viewer gets a better idea of both the artist and their inspiration. 

“As an artist, I know that people often say they like to come to an artist’s studio because they like to see how you think when you make you work. I feel like my experience with [the show], is not too dissimilar,” Joyce says. “The audience can see what the artist sees when we see O’Keeffe, which may not be as apparent when you’re seeing just a show exclusively of O’Keeffe. Hopefully, you’ll see through our eyes more nuances in her work.”

When looking to explore the lasting significance of an artist as well known as O’Keeffe, Joyce and Auther strayed away from common narratives like master and apprentice or the evolution of a certain art movement. 

“There’s a very classic way that art history is presented, and you see that in exhibitions all the time. This is very different,” Auther says. “It’s still about legacy. It’s still about influence. But it’s an open-ended conversation between O’Keeffe and these artists. It’s not a straight line. It’s a lateral conversation.” 

By presenting a new perspective, Aftereffect leaves the audience with a fresh perspective on art history, a sampling of the current art moment and a glimpse of what’s to come.    

On the Bill: Aftereffect. Museum of Contemporary Art, 1485 Delgany St., Denver. Through May 26. 

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