Inspiration and admiration — Dove & O’Keefe (with photo gallery)

“Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence,” this summer’s big show at the Clark Art Institute, is the fir

Artist Georgia O’Keeffe is an icon of America’s 20th century, known for paintings of voluptuous flowers and sun-bleached animal bones. A pioneer of American Modernism, she was a fiercely independent woman who blazed the trail for female artists.

But most Americans don’t know much about the soft-spoken Arthur Dove, an artist who energized the enigmatic O’Keeffe during her early career. Another important figure in American Modernism, Dove was one of our country’s first abstract painters.

“Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence,” this summer’s big show at the Clark Art Institute, is the first exhibit to deeply explore the lifelong bond of inspiration and admiration between the two artists. Curated by Debra Bricker Balken, an independent curator who organized a major Dove retrospective 12 years ago at the Whitney Museum of American Art, “Circles of Influence” will appear only at the Clark.

‘Dove/O’Keeffe: Circles of Influence’

WHERE: Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, 225 South St., Williamstown, Mass.

WHEN: Today through Sept. 7.

HOW MUCH: $12.50 for adults, free for students and children age 18 and under.

MORE INFO: (413) 458-2303 or, where you can read the catalog and listen to an audio tour.

RELATED EVENTS: Curator’s lecture at 2 p.m. today; “Georgia O’Keeffe,” 1977 documentary film on June 27, July 24 and Aug. 23; free family day on Aug. 2; and Barbara Stanwyck film series on Saturdays in July and August

Spanning a period from 1910 to the early 1940s, the exhibit features 60 oil paintings, watercolors, drawings and pastels, including O’Keeffe’s “Dark Abstraction” (1924) and Jack-in-the-Pulpit No. VI (1930) and Dove’s “Moon” (1935) and “Fog Horns” (1929). While “Circles of Influence” was researched at the Clark, the exhibit is a departure for the museum in that none of its artworks are from the Clark’s collection.

“We’re hoping the show will present a different aspect of her career,” Sarah Hammond, curatorial assistant at the Clark and co-curator of its recent Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit, says of O’Keeffe. “The show is oriented around pre-New Mexico works, the first part of her career that people might not be that familiar with, and looks at that work through the lens of her relationship with Arthur Dove.” “Circles of Influence” is loosely chronological and divided into three sections: “New York Modernism,” “Nature and the Abstract” and “Convergences/Divergences.” “We start out in the nineteens and twenties in New York, which is the link between Dove and O’Keeffe,” says Hammond.

From different regions

Dove was born in 1880 to a wealthy family in Canandaigua, in the upstate Finger Lakes region. After graduating from Cornell University, he headed to New York City and began a successful career as an illustrator. In 1907, Dove and his first wife moved to Paris, where he experimented with the new European painting styles. When he returned to New York two years later, the famous photographer Alfred Stieglitz was so impressed, he hung Dove’s paintings in his 291 Gallery. “Dove came onto the New York scene before Georgia O’ Keeffe even met Stieglitz,” says Hammond.

O’Keeffe grew up in Wisconsin, studied art at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Art Students League in New York City, then took teaching and commercial art jobs in Virginia, Texas and the Carolinas.

O’Keeffe first saw Dove’s work in a book recommended by her friend Anita Pollitzer, a photographer who later became a women’s rights activist. “She was really fascinated by his experiments with abstraction and use of color, and really made a point to try and see his work when she visited New York,” says Hammond.

Reputation takes off

In 1916, without O’Keeffe’s permission, Pollitzer showed her artwork to Stieglitz, who called it “the purest, finest, sincerest things that have entered 291 in a long while.” A year later, the 29-year-old O’Keeffe met the 51-year-old Stieglitz, and she had her first solo show at his gallery, events that sparked the love affair and eventual marriage of the two modern art legends. In 1918, O’Keeffe met Dove among Stieglitz’s circle of artists and friends.

“She was drawn to his ideas and his art, but I think also to him as a person. He was mild-mannered and never went out of the way to promote his work,” Hammond says.

The unusual O’Keeffe, who wore black dresses and hair tightly pulled back, became an art sensation, especially after Stieglitz exhibited photographs of her that included nudes.

The critics also linked Dove and O’Keeffe’s artwork, and based their observations on Freudian analyses. “They saw the spirit and robustness and energy of Dove’s work as being inherently masculine. Yet, they saw that same sort of passion and intensity of focus of O’Keeffe’s work as somehow inherently female,” says Hammond.

In letters to Stieglitz, Dove was outraged that the critics reduced O’Keeffe’s work to their understanding of her as a woman but not as an artist. “They [the critics] read her work as very sexualized, and with the photographs that Stieglitz had taken of O’Keeffe in the nude, there was always that link between her body and her sex and her image and her work,” says Hammond.

Common ground

“Nature and Abstraction,” the second section, looks at the artists’ subject matter as common ground.

“The way you see nature depends on whatever has influenced your way of seeing. I think it was Arthur Dove who affected my start, who helped me to find something of my own,” O’Keeffe once said.

“They were both interested in nature and landscape and natural surroundings. They both came from rural surroundings, Dove from upstate New York, and O’Keeffe from the West,” says Hammond. “She admired his appreciation for the various nuances of light” and his idea that “everything on Earth was inter-related.”

At the Clark, two of Dove’s “Sunrise” paintings are hung with O’Keeffe’s “Sunrise” (1916), one of her early works that Dove called “her burning watercolors.” His “Fog Horns” and her “Wave, Night” are also paired. “Fog Horns” is a “sound picture” based on Russian painter Kandinsky’s idea that the sound or feeling of one sense could be elicited through another.

For Dove, who lived aboard a sailboat with his second wife, artist Helen Torr, it was “a visualization of the fog horns echoing across Long Island Sound,” Hammond says.

Exploring ’30s and ’40s

O’Keeffe’s “Wave, Night” is “calm and dark,” she says. There is “a sense of a cold evening on the beach.” The third section, “Convergences and Divergences” looks at their works from the 1930s through the early 1940s, when O’Keeffe spends more time in New Mexico, traveling back to the Northeast to visit Stieglitz in New York City and Lake George.

“She started making the work that people are probably the most familiar with, the skulls, and continued with the flower pictures,” Hammond says. “She really cultivated a persona of being a loner and gritty and determined — the quintessential American self-made woman artist.” Dove continues to embrace abstraction but also experiments with water colors after studying O’Keeffe’s early work. “She became his inspiration,” says Hammond.

Dove lived in Connecticut, on his sailboat, and in upstate New York. He never visited O’Keeffe in the Southwest.

“The extent to which Dove and O’Keeffe had a close personal relationship, it wasn’t really based on face time. It was really through their art and what they saw of each other’s work, through exhibitions and their conversations via Stieglitz,” says Hammond.

“That’s the circles of influence we talk about; how the exchange between them continued and lasted for several decades.” They also owned each other’s work. O’Keeffe’s 1919 “Abstraction,” currently at the Clark, once hung in the cabin of Dove’s houseboat. In New Mexico, O’Keeffe’s home was sparely furnished. “I like walls empty,” O’Keeffe said. “I’ve only left up two Arthur Doves, some African sculpture and a little of my own stuff.” After Stieglitz and Dove died in 1946, O’Keeffe spent all her time on her ranch near Santa Fe. She lost her eyesight in her later years, and died in 1986 at age 98.

Categories: Life and Arts

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