Georgia O’Keeffe Once Painted Hawaii-Inspired Ads for Dole Foods—and Now They’re Coming to New York
The artist's desert landscapes give way to lush, paradisical scenes.
The year was 1939. At the behest of what is today known as the Dole Food Company, leading American painter Georgia O’Keeffe spent two months in the Hawaiian Islands, drawing inspiration from the tropical landscape and its vibrant vegetation. A little-known chapter in the career of one of this country’s most famous artists, O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian sojourn takes center stage this spring at the New York Botanical Garden in “Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai’i.”
“Georgia O’Keeffe did commercial work throughout her career,” guest curator and art historian Theresa Papanikolas told artnet News at a luncheon previewing the exhibition. “For her, it was a free trip to Hawaii.”
Over the course of nine weeks, O’Keeffe immersed herself in one of the most biologically diverse places on the planet, painting her signature close-up shots of flowers and plants, as well as landscapes of Hawaii’s mountains and waterfalls. For an artist who had been more than a decade deeply inspired by the stark deserts of New Mexico, it was a transformative experience.
“My idea of the world, nature… has not been beautiful enough,” O’Keeffe wrote in one of the 100 or so letters to her partner, Alfred Stieglitz, during her stay. When she returned, Stieglitz exhibited her Hawaiian paintings at an American Place gallery in 1940.
The garden will recreate the Hawaii that O’Keeffe knew, transforming the flower beds in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory into an ecologically complex, exotic landscape reminiscent of the islands. Frangipani, bougainvillea, heliconia, hibiscus, bird of paradise, ginger, and other tropical flowers will fill the glass greenhouse, with a traditional Hawaiian hale, a thatched-roof open-sided pavilion, serving as the display’s centerpiece.
In the garden’s LuEsther T. Mertz Library Art Gallery, a selection of 20 of O’Keeffe’s Hawaii paintings will be reunited for the first time in New York. (Only one of the works has remained in in the city in the decades since their debut, as part of the collection at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.)
O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian output has only ever been the subject of two exhibitions, both at the Honolulu Museum: “Georgia O’Keeffe: Paintings of Hawaii” in 1990, and “Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawai’i Pictures,” curated by Papanikolas, the museum’s deputy director of art and programs, in 2013.
The Honolulu museum is loaning the Botanical Garden landscape paintings featuring Maui’s ʻĪao Valley and lava-flooded coast. The show will also include Heliconia, Crab’s Claw Ginger and Pineapple Bud, two of O’Keeffe’s paintings that were used as advertisements for the Hawaiian Pineapple Company and that are currently in private collections.
“There’s a very clear depiction of a tropical paradise,” said Papanikolas. “They very much have that sense of place.”
The garden’s celebration of Hawaii will extend beyond O’Keeffe’s work, with Aloha Nights and other programming taking place throughout the exhibition’s run. There will be workshops from experts on lei-making and Hawaiian woodblock printing, as well as live music and hula dancing.
The exhibition will throw a spotlight on O’Keeffe’s idyllic Hawaiian interlude, historically overshadowed by her more characteristic flower and New Mexico paintings. “It’s not often a repeated part of the story,” said Papanikolas. “It’s fun to revisit!”
“Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawai’i” will be on view at the New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, May 19–October 28, 2018.
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