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Their Chance to Redefine Modernism

The new Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center is devoted to the artist and the movement she furthered.

July 01, 2001|HUNTER DROHOJOWSKA-PHILP | Hunter Drohojowska-Philp is a frequent contributor to Calendar

SANTA FE, New Mexico — "We are trying to create a context for Georgia O'Keeffe," says Barbara Buhler Lynes, director of a new Santa Fe research center dedicated to the study of O'Keeffe and American Modernism.

Lynes is the author of the only catalogue raisonne of the artist's work and curator of the collection at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. She believes New Mexico's most famous artist has been wrongly cast as an isolated phenomenon, placed too far outside the continuum of American art history. "People are unwilling to admit that she was influential, but she is," Lynes says. "Not only O'Keeffe but other artists in [her Modernist] circle. There is continuity among artists and trends."

The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum Research Center, which opens in a renovated Victorian house on July 12, is dedicated to undoing the misunderstanding, to encouraging scholarship in American Modernism as well as furthering study of O'Keeffe's place in art history.

Although the research center is reserved for scholars, the public is invited to attend any of the panels offered during a three-day symposium July 12-14 titled "Defining American Modernism, 1890-Present," with a keynote address by Kirk Varnedoe, chief curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The research center has been in the works since the 1997 opening of the museum.

"The founders of the O'Keeffe Museum always had the idea of a research center as a way of furthering scholarship," says museum director George King. "For any institution [like the O'Keeffe Museum], research is the foundation."

The key founders of the museum are heiress Anne Marion and her husband, former Sotheby's America Chairman and auctioneer John Marion. Their Burnett Foundation funded the purchase of the house and its transformation into the research center, which now has six offices and computers for scholars as well as administration offices, a library, archives and meeting rooms with video and slide projection capabilities. The Burnett Foundation also funds a visiting scholars' program for the center, providing stipends up to $35,000 for a yearlong residency.

"Part of the reason we are doing it is because we are a single artist museum," said King. "We recognize that other artists were part of the Modernist movement with O'Keeffe. We feel it is necessary to be as inclusive as possible. The definition of the word 'modern' is hotly debated, and the museum and research center will provide dialogue about that."

As Lynes and King developed a plan for the center, they visited other research institutes, including those at the Getty Center in Los Angeles and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Along the way, they discovered plenty of institutions studying European Modernism or American art but none pursuing Modernism as it developed in this country.

Lynes surmises that one reason for the gap stems from the impact of Abstract Expressionism and its powerful supporters.

"It has a lot to do with [critic] Clement Greenberg, who didn't pay attention to American art before 1950," she says. "American Modernism from the whole first half of the century was stifled because so much significance was attributed to the second half. The idea that Abstract Expressionism was the first important American art movement is like wearing blinders really."

The decision to encourage a broad-based look at Modernism came indirectly from photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz, who was O'Keeffe's husband and a promoter of the American modern artists from 1918 until his death in 1946. His interests included music, literature, photography, architecture and design as well as art. Following his example, the O'Keeffe research center fellowships will focus on those disciplines.

In addition, the center will encourage scholarship from the late 19th century to the present. Lynes says, "I thought there was no necessity for cutting scholarship off at 1950. If you are going to say Modernism ends in 1945, the Museum of Modern Art would have to rename itself. The term 'Modernism' keeps getting redefined, so we made it broad-based and open-ended. I think we will get the best creative work that way."

When it comes to specific O'Keeffe research, scholars at the center will have access to material on loan from the Santa Fe-based O'Keeffe Foundation, which owns many paintings and other materials related to the artist. The foundation has loaned 800 sketches and unfinished artwork, copies of the notebooks in which the artist and her assistants documented her work from the 1940s until her death in 1986, as well as copies of the checklists and installation photographs of her exhibitions. The research center purchased and received donations of other O'Keeffe-related material for its archives and continues to expand the collections. The center's library features a system of glass-topped drawers so scholars can examine O'Keeffe artifacts.

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