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Tropical Healing with Georgia O’Keeffe at the New York Botanical Garden

HELICONIA, CRAB-CLAW GINGER (1939) by Georgia O'Keeffe, on display at the New York Botanical Garden. This image, along with PINEAPPLE BUD, was used in later ads for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company.

By Shani R. Friedman

Whether you’re ready to say good riddance to these endless dog days of summer or are wishing you could camp out at the beach for a few more weeks, city dwellers won’t want to miss their chance to get a little taste of the tropical at the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) before their Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit comes to a close next month.

In 1939, the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (today the Dole Food Company), in what was then a rare instance of art and advertising colliding, hired O’Keeffe to create images for a campaign. What they wanted was someone to paint pineapples. What they got was something else entirely – a brand-new exploration of the connection between humans and plants.

O’Keeffe, by then a popular and reputed artist, was married to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who had discouraged her from taking the trip. From New York to Hawaii was an arduous task in those days, with weeks spent traveling cross-country by train and boat. For the then-51-year-old O’Keeffe, however, the chance for adventure was too tempting to resist; she eventually embarked on a nine-week journey, exploring the beaches, flora and volcanoes of Oahu, Maui and other Hawaiian islands. While immersed in the largely undeveloped landscape she wrote, “Many things are so beautiful that they don’t seem real. My idea of the world—nature…has not been beautiful enough.”

Image charting O’Keeffe’s voyage to Hawaii in 1939

HIBISCUS WITH PLUMERIA (1939)

The transportive works she painted, rarely seen, are together in New York for the first time since 1940, when Stieglitz featured them at his American Place Gallery. Credit goes to exhibition curator Theresa Papanikolas for introducing these mostly forgotten paintings to a new audience.

In these pieces, showing the vast range of Hawaii’s natural treasures, O’Keeffe’s love for Earth’s wonders is palpable. From lady’s slipper and hibiscus flowers to lush green mountains, wild waterfalls, and black sand beaches, her portraits exude a raw sensuality that goes beyond appreciation. Her remarkable craftsmanship evokes the power of each subject, allowing viewers to feel the heady rush of horticultural bonding that the artist herself experienced onsite.

As an amusing final note, perhaps owing to her fierce independent streak, O’Keefe didn’t actually didn’t paint any pineapples until she’d returned to New York and had a plant sent to her by the company. She had started numerous works inspired by her tropical surroundings, but none quite fit the standard for the desired ads – until she created Pineapple Bud. The entrancing picture of a nascent pineapple, halfway between fruit and flower, was the perfect symbol for the emergence of Hawaii’s exotic beauty into mainstream American culture. It would appear in magazines as part of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company’s ads for the following year.

The original PINEAPPLE BUD (1939)

While at NYBG, you’ll also want to check out the accompanying vibrant flower show in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory. Featuring many different Hawaiian plants gifted by Hawaii’s National Tropical Botanical Garden, it’s a real treat to see these up close. Of the 1200 species of plant life in the 50th state, 90% grow only in Hawaii.

In addition to reuniting 17 of O’Keeffe’s Hawaii paintings—an 18th, Hibiscus, sold for $4.8 million at a May 2018 American art sale at Christie’s and may be included in subsequent stops on the show’s tour—the exhibition showcases the flowers and plants of Hawaii that so inspired the artist.

WATERFALL, NO. 1, ‘IAO VALLEY, MAUI (1939)

BLACK LAVA BRIDGE, HANA COAST, NO. 1 (1939)

Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaii runs through October 28th. For more information visit https://www.nybg.org/

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