Landmark O'Keeffe exhibition in Toronto, 85 years after artist visited Canada
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TORONTO — Eighty-five years after Georgia O'Keeffe visited Canada, a major exhibition of her work has come to the Art Gallery of Ontario.
It's the final stop of a show that debuted last July at the Tate Modern in London before moving to the Bank Austria Kunstforum in Vienna — and its only visit to North America.
The AGO exhibit, billed by gallery CEO Stephan Jost as "probably THE (O'Keeffe) exhibition to see," showcases more than 80 works spanning six decades. Installation on the Toronto show, which opens to the public Saturday, started April 3 — the 100th anniversary of O'Keeffe's first solo exhibition in New York.
The show offers samples of the artist's wide-ranging portfolio ranging from New York skylines to her trademark flowers, skulls and New Mexico vistas. It also features striking photos from husband Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams and Arnold Newman.
A prolific artist considered a founding figure of American modernism, O'Keeffe produced more than 800 works in her lifetime. One of the prizes of the AGO show is "Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1," an iconic O'Keeffe that sold in 2014 for US$44.4 million.
It instantly became the most expensive painting sold at auction by a female artist, a record O'Keeffe likely would not have appreciated.
“The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter," she once said. "I think I'm one of the best painters."
The 1932 depiction of a white flower with lush green leaves went to Arkansas' Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, founded and funded by Walmart heiress Alice B. Walton.
It is perhaps no surprise then that the AGO exhibit gives the picture pride of place, with a couch located directly in front of it.
"Every time you return to O'Keeffe, it's not that you see something new. It's that you see something more," said Georgiana Uhlyarik, the AGO's associate curator of Canadian art.
Presentation of the AGO show is elegant and subtle. According to Uhlyarik, the artist was exacting in the way she wanted her work framed and displayed. O'Keeffe, who died in 1986 at age 98, insisted her paintings be hung on white walls.
The Toronto show honours that wish, although there are variations. New York pictures are housed in a section featuring a "much cooler" white, with the New Mexico picture section on walls that are a warmer shade.
O'Keeffe came to Canada twice in 1932, visits that produced some signature pictures of barns which did not make it from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Toronto show because of their fragility.
"I would have been willing to stay on in Canada if it hadn't been so terribly cold," she said at the time.
O'Keeffe also was inspired to paint large crosses and flagpoles from her Quebec trip. The AGO show does offer a 1932 oil paint on canvas called "Nature Forms — Gaspe" from her Canadian visit.
It also features "The Eggplant," the first O'Keeffe painting to leave the United States. A persuasive Doris Huestis Mills, a Toronto artist, poet and socialite, bought it in 1925.
She hung it at her house, where Lawren Harris and other Group of Seven painters got to see it. The painting was donated in her memory to the AGO in 1990.
As part of the exhibition, the painting has been reframed to O'Keeffe's original specifications.
Uhlyarik says O'Keeffe "feels very familiar" to Canadians not only because of her own well-known works but also her influence on Canadian artists from Harris and Emily Carr to Pegi Nicol MacLeod and Marian Scott.
"Contemporary artists are still working with some of her imagery to this day," said Uhlyarik.
The curator's advice to exhibit visitors is just trust the artist.
"She is remarkable, she really is. You just have to kind of open yourself up to it and just say, 'What am I looking at? How am I looking at it?' Because really what she's trying to do is to communicate herself directly to you through these images."
The O'Keeffe exhibit runs at the AGO through July 30.
O'Keeffe's legacy is also on view in New York and Australia.
An exhibit called "O'Keeffe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism," which shines a spotlight on O'Keeffe and Australian artists Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington Smith, is touring Australia.
In New York, the Brooklyn Museum is showing "Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern," which focuses on O'Keeffe's iconic wardrobe in conjunction with select paintings and photographs.
"I'd like to think that she would love the balance and harmony of being on two hemispheres at the same time," said Uhlyarik.
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