Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i
Place: The New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, New York
Dates: May 19 through October 28
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and select holiday Mondays
Admission: Starts at $23 for adults, $20 for seniors 65 and older, $20 for students with valid ID and $10 for children 2 through 12 (free for children under 2 and NYBG members). Ticket prices include access to the entire garden and a tram tour. You can buy tickets online to avoid long lines at the entrance.
Phone: (718) 817-8700
Notes: Special activities are planned in conjunction with the exhibit, including lectures, classes, film screenings, live music, hula performances, children’s art activities and demonstrations by artisans skilled in lei making and kapa (bark cloth) making and more. Additional fees apply for some of them. Go to the website for details.
The invitation seemed too good to turn down: Paint whatever you please during a nine-week, all-expenses-paid visit to Hawaii, and, in exchange, provide two paintings that Dole Company can use for its national advertising campaign for pineapple juice. Still, Georgia O’Keeffe did not jump at the offer that N.W. Ayer & Son, Dole’s prestigious advertising agency, made in the summer of 1938. By then, the artist had both fame and wealth; she pondered if she wanted to travel to islands in the middle of the Pacific, far from her homes in New York and New Mexico. Ultimately, O’Keeffe decided to go. After a nine-day trip from New York by train and steamship, she arrived in Honolulu on February 8, 1939. She spent just a few days on Kauai. Her time on Oahu and Hawaii island was a whirlwind of sightseeing, social events and meetings. In contrast, her schedule on Maui was far less structured, and she relished the freedom that she had to explore and create.
(Note: O’Keeffe flew in a Sikorski S-43 operated by Inter-Island Airways, Hawaiian Airlines’ predecessor, between Honolulu and Kauai, from Honolulu to Maui and from Hilo on Hawaii island to Honolulu. She traveled from Maui to Hilo overnight via the steamer Waialeale, which was run by Inter-Island Steamship Company, Inter-Island Airways’ parent company.)
O’Keeffe spent 18 days on Maui, 10 in Hana as the guest of Willis Jennings, manager of the Kaeleku Sugar Plantation. Because he was busy with work and his wife was in California tending to her ailing mother, he gave O’Keeffe the keys to the family’s car and assigned his 12-year-old daughter, Patricia, to be her guide.
In a March 18, 1939, letter to her husband, photographer and art gallery owner Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe wrote: “Yesterday afternoon we must have walked a couple of miles along the coast—always we go to a new place—the lava makes a crazy coast—black with the bright blue sea—pounding surf rising very high in the air in many places—queer formations worn in the lava—bridges—gate ways—holes through it where it seems so solid where the water comes up in spray—hissing and blowing.”
That scene inspired two dramatic paintings.
O’Keeffe’s fascination with Iao Valley is evident in her March 23 letter to Stieglitz: “It is a wonderful valley—I’ve been painting up it for three days and it is just too beautiful with its sheer green hills and waterfalls—I should say mountains—not hills—a winding road that really frightens me—big trucks have to stop and back up to get round the curves but even if I’m scared it is worth it—you drive about ten miles an hour—it is just a narrow shelf on the side of the sheer mountain walls.”
Later, critics would be united in full-throated praise for her four interpretations of silvery waterfalls flowing down Iao’s verdant peaks.
In all, O’Keeffe produced 20 paintings of Hawaii flowers, landscapes, seascapes and fishhooks, although it’s unclear which ones were completed in the Islands and which ones were done after she returned to New York, based on photos, memories, sketches and souvenirs.
The exception is Pineapple Bud.
To fulfill her commitment to Dole, O’Keeffe presented N.W. Ayer with paintings of a red heliconia and a papaya tree, which wasn’t going to work because papaya was the product of a rival company. Although the agency’s executives had given her free rein with regard to subject matter, they were obviously disappointed; they had hoped, of course, that she would paint a pineapple.
Art Director Charles Coiner knew he couldn’t demand the headstrong O’Keeffe to do that, so he gently persuaded her to look at the fruit in the bud stage. He asked Dole’s Honolulu headquarters to send one to her Manhattan penthouse, and it arrived 36 hours later.
“It’s a beautiful plant,” O’Keeffe admitted. “It is made up of long green blades and the pineapples grow on top of it. I never knew that.”
She painted it, enabling Dole to have an appropriate work of art for an ad.
All of O’Keeffe’s Hawaii paintings will be displayed for five months in New York. Hawaiian Airlines is one of the major sponsors of this landmark exhibition at The New York Botanical Garden entitled Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai‘i (see sidebar above for details).