At MCA Denver, Contemporary Artists Reflect On Georgia O’Keeffe’s Enduring Influence

February 21, 2019
Photo: MCA Denver Georgia O'Keeffe Exhibit 1
Works by Leslie Smith III at the MCA Denver on Feb. 14, 2019.

Artist Georgia O'Keeffe has been called the "mother of American modernism." Perhaps best known for her paintings of flowers and New Mexico’s high desert, she’s been an inspiration to many artists — even though some critics thought she was overrated.

A new exhibition at MCA Denver displays O'Keeffe's work alongside some of the present day artists she has influenced. "Aftereffect: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Painting" runs through May 26.

Elissa Auther, the Windgate research curator at the Museum of Arts and Design in Manhattan, organized the exhibition. She said O’Keeffe’s commercial success and popularity often came at a cost. Some critics “dismissed [her] as a ‘dorm-room poster artist.’”

“She also received quite a bit of criticism that her style is too feminine, too erotic, too precious, too tidy, too pretty for instance. All of those terms are gendered, kind of negative connotations of femininity,” Auther said. “That all impacted the reception of her work throughout her career."

The MCA Denver exhibition is not a tribute to O’Keeffe, per se — only eight of her works are on display. The show doesn’t just pair O’Keeffe paintings with contemporary works on the basis of similar looks. The connections might require deeper investigation, Auther said.

Wall text, written by the participating artists, will help guide visitors. Auther hopes the show provides a reframing of O’Keeffe’s contributions, as well as highlights how contemporary artists are bringing their own ideas to abstract painting.

Four participating artists talked to Colorado Matters about how O’Keeffe inspires them.

Photo: MCA Denver Georgia O'Keeffe Exhibit 4
"Reclaimed Fuchsia Rose 1" - Emily Joyce

Photo: MCA Denver Georgia O'Keeffe Exhibit 4

Interview Highlights

Los Angeles Visual Artist And Exhibition Consultant Emily Joyce:

“I love the way that she uses color. You’ll see in a lot of her paintings that she assigns a color, like let’s say pink to a hillside and then maybe next to that hillside is the sky. And a lot of painters would do some blending or you’ll paint a sky with many different colors. But for O’Keeffe, the color is always very localized … and these colors, they come right up next to each other, but they never overlap.

The conservationist at the O’Keeffe Research Center [in Santa Fe] told us that you can, under a microscope, see like a tiny bit of raw canvas … and I think that creates a kind of rhythm, pattern, shifts in balance that I try to do in my own work too.”

Photo: MCA Denver Georgia O'Keeffe Exhibit 3
"Saint #2" - Corey Drieth

Colorado Springs Painter Corey Drieth:

“I’m most interested in how O’Keeffe paints: the kind of brush work she uses, the attention to her subject. I think I bring that similar kind of attention and intimacy to my subject … The criticism that’s leveled at O’Keeffe’s work is understandable, but it’s a bit unfair.

I think she’s been overlooked way too often because of her popularity and how much her work has been reproduced. When you look closely at her work, especially the entire body of her work, there’s so much to discover … it’s a way of knowing the world and being in the world.”

Visual Artist Leslie Smith III, Of Madison, Wis.:

“Often times with her work, I think about the time of day and geography that she’s trying to locate me, the viewer. And I do that too in many regards. It might not be connected to a specific geography, but there’s a time and a place that I’m trying to locate the viewer to understand my work. Photo: MCA Denver Georgia O'Keeffe Exhibit 2

In addition to that, her later works, I have a deep affinity for, the works that were more architectural … The works from New Mexico, the flat facades of architectural doors and portals, those pieces are innovative for the time that they were made and I don’t think they get enough attention.”     

Brooklyn-Based Artist Carrie Moyer:

“Her sense of scale is absolutely phenomenal. If you go to visit Ghost Ranch, which is where she painted in New Mexico, you find out that a lot of the paintings that look like mountain ranges are actually paintings of little hills. So she’s actually sitting in front of something that is not as monumental as the painting. And so you have this amazing sense of what a painting can do in terms of a kind of mental space that’s possible.”

Other featured artists include Jeffrey Gibson, Mary Heilmann, Matt Connors, Mary Weatherford, Lesley Vance, Loie Hollowell, Gretchen Marie Schaefer and Melissa Thorne.

"Aftereffect: Georgia O’Keeffe and Contemporary Painting" runs through May 26, 2019 at MCA Denver.