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“Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast No. 1,” 1939, by Georgia O’Keeffe (Photo: Honolulu Museum of Art)

Early in 1939, Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist most famous for depicting the arid Southwest, suddenly decided to paint America’s diametrically opposite landscape — the lush tropical valleys of Hawaii. In an era when advertisers often hired fine artists to add a touch of class to their campaigns, the “least commercial artist in the U.S.” (as Time Magazine described her) was persuaded by the Dole pineapple company to visit the remote Pacific archipelago and produce two canvases. The offer came at a critical time in O’Keeffe’s life. She was 51, her career seemed to be stalling (critics were calling her focus on New Mexico limited, and branding her desert images “a kind of mass production”), and her marriage to Alfred Stieglitz was under serious strain.

Despite initial reservations about the project, her many letters back home show that her experience of the then little-known Territory of Hawaii was a revelation. O’Keeffe ended up spending nine weeks on different islands, of which by far the most productive and vivid period was on Maui, where she was given complete freedom to explore and paint. Back on Oahu, where she had first arrived, she had been incensed that Dole officials refused to let her stay on a working pineapple plantation because it was unseemly for a woman. When they delivered to her hotel a pineapple already peeled and sliced, she tossed it out in disgust. But on Maui she was able to seek out an unfiltered view of nature, and went directly to the most remote, wild and verdant corner of the island: the port of Hana.

She reported back to Stieglitz about Hana’s dark rain forests, exuberant flora, black sand beaches and lava washed into “sharp and fantastic shapes.” Staying on the Kaeleku sugar plantation, the notoriously prickly artist was given Patricia Jennings, the 12-year-old daughter of the plantation manager, as her private guide, and the two became unlikely friends; for 10 days the pair visited sea caves, ruins and beaches, and later, with Patricia’s father, made excursions to the dramatic Iao Valley and Haleakala Crater.

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Tony Perrottet
New York Times

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“Red and Orange Streak” (1919) is part of Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction at the Whitney. (Philadelphia Museum of Art)

There are two Georgia O’Keeffes. They’re closely related, but one is far more interesting than the other. Not so interesting, except maybe as a marketing phenomenon, is the post-1930s cow-skull painter and striker of frontier-priestess poses. More interesting, and less familiar, is the artist found in “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction,” a vivid and surprisingly surprising show of more than 130 paintings and drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

The show’s focus is on the first two decades of O’Keeffe’s long career. The story starts in 1915, when she was an art teacher in South Carolina and produced her first abstract drawings, which were also among the first fully abstract images by any American artist. Three years later she had her first encounter with the photographer and dealer Alfred Stieglitz, who set her up in New York, initiating a long personal, professional and mutually promotional partnership.

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Holland Cotter
New York Times

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When it comes to Georgia O’Keeffe, there is popular history and there is academic history. To the general public, she is a charter member of the American modernists, the woman whose student drawings prompted famed gallerist-photographer Alfred Stieglitz to say, “finally, a woman on paper,” whose physical beauty captured Stieglitz’s camera and heart and whose erotically charged abstract flowers are objects of delight.

Art historians know the story is much more complicated. O’Keeffe was a reluctant modernist at first. She knew the art of her most famous teacher, William Merritt Chase, was doomed. But she disliked the cubism of Cézanne, whose works were stirring the pot in New York’s art world. Then, encouraged to look at the pictures but not the text in Arthur Jerome Eddy’s “Cubists and Post-Impressionism,” O’Keeffe drew inspiration from a work by Arthur Dove, an artist who aspired to be a farmer but who nevertheless made the first abstract painting in America, if not the world. What she saw — his “Based on Leaf Forms and Spaces,” 1911-12 — is now lost. But as O’Keeffe recalled when she was in her 70s, “It was Arthur Dove who affected my start, who helped me to find something of my own.”

Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence,” at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute here, is the first exhibition to explore their relationship. But what’s important is not that visitors learn art history. It’s that they see for themselves the way these two artists inspired each other over more than three decades and, more important, that they discover, or rediscover, the extraordinary, underappreciated Dove.

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Judith H,. Dobrzynski
Wall Street Journal

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