St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Artists shared the power of petals

A museum exhibit merges the unique perspectives Georgia O'Keeffe and Andy Warhol had of flowers.

DEBORAH BAKER, Associated Press
Published July 3, 2005

SANTA FE, N.M. - Paintings of big, splashy flowers hanging on the walls of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. So what else is new?

They're not by O'Keeffe. They're by Andy Warhol.

The two icons of American art are brought together for an exhibit that showcases their singular takes on a traditional subject: flowers.

The late artists - she died in 1986 at age 98, he a year later at age 58 - came to prominence a half-century apart. And they're associated with different aspects of American culture - "Warhol being the kind of urban, underground, avant-garde New York, and O'Keeffe being the American West," said John W. Smith, assistant director for collections, exhibitions and research at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh.

But the early American modernist painter and the pop artist known for his soup cans and Coca-Cola bottles have their similarities.

They were giants who carefully cultivated their images, developed enormous followings and now have museums devoted to them.

"Georgia O'Keeffe and Andy Warhol: Flowers of Distinction" was organized by Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the O'Keeffe museum, who thought it would be fun to juxtapose their work.

"They represent two very different approaches to the image of the flower, and they represent different moments in the history of American modern art," Lynes said.

The artists knew one another; Warhol interviewed her for his magazine in 1983 and did portraits of O'Keeffe. Their photo - she in her customary monastic black, he in his trademark silver wig - is featured on a post card for sale at the O'Keeffe museum.

Lynes assembled 41 depictions of flowers, from the O'Keeffe Museum's permanent collection and from private collections, and from the Warhol museum and the Sonnabend Gallery in New York. They include large-scale flower paintings from the 1920s and 1930s that Lynes contends were part of O'Keeffe's effort to revamp her image and define herself on her terms.

Photographer Alfred Stieglitz - O'Keeffe's husband and agent - had promoted and encouraged the idea that her abstract paintings were a manifestation of female sexuality, Lynes says.

Determined to shake the resulting notoriety, O'Keeffe began painting representational subject matter. The enlarged views of flowers - some unisexual, some with both male and female reproductive parts - possibly was an attempt to demonstrate that her work transcended gender boundaries, Lynes suggests in her essay, "Say It With Flowers," from the exhibit catalog.

While she never completely succeeded in disassociating her work from ideas of female sexuality, the flower paintings helped her establish a public image as a serious artist, Lynes writes.

That was bolstered with her permanent move in 1949 to rural northern New Mexico, where she created the illusion of the aesthete living a solitary life, Lynes said.

The O'Keeffe half of the exhibit also features the first public display of her earliest known flower painting, a watercolor from 1903 - when she was 15 - of delicate, pink cherry blossoms in an Asian-influenced style.

The Pittsburgh-born Warhol, who began his career as a commercial artist, already was the king of pop art when he did the best known of his flower paintings. "Flowers, 1965" is a series of works in varying sizes - in Day-Glo colors as well as black and white - based on a color photograph of hibiscus blossoms that had appeared in Modern Photography magazine.

Flowers were a theme that kept popping up in Warhol's work, according to Smith.

Also included in the exhibition are the 10 prints in his "Flowers (Hand-Colored)" series, published in 1974 and based on images of ikebana flower arrangements. Smith says Warhol became interested in the Japanese art of flower arranging when he traveled to Tokyo that year.

Warhol created for himself an almost childlike image of aloofness, disengagement and anti-intellectualism that "wasn't the case at all," Smith said.

"He was a smart, articulate, savvy businessman and artist - absolutely aware of the effect he was creating in everything he did and everything he said," Smith said. In that, Smith added, he was like O'Keeffe.

"They're both as famous for being famous artists as they are for their art work. They are really sort of art celebrities."

The exhibition will remain on view through Jan. 8.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.