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George O ‘Keeffe Show Opens at County Art Museum

Bleached cattle bones bake in the white-hot sun, lush poppies unfurl rich red petals, vivid abstractions reek with erotic overtones: Georgia O’Keeffe’s art has come to town.

Winding up a blockbuster five-city tour, “Georgia O’Keeffe: 1887-1986" opens today at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Critical assessments of the exhibit have varied, but museum officials who have hosted the revered American modernist’s show, already seen by more than 1.3 million people, call it immensely popular. In Dallas, it broke attendance records.

Organized in late 1987 by Washington’s National Gallery of Art, the exhibit traveled from there to the Art Institute of Chicago, then to the Dallas Museum of Art, and was initially scheduled to conclude this February at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Lenders weren’t keen on loaning their works for too long. But big crowds and a little persuasion apparently paid off.

“We were able to convince the National Gallery, (exhibit funder) Southwestern Bell Foundation, lenders, and the O’Keeffe estate that a West Coast venue would be not just desirable but essential,” said Earl A. Powell, County Museum of Art director. The artist’s estate loaned about one-third of 101 paintings and drawings on view through June 18.

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O’Keeffe, whose giant, sensuous flowers and transcendent Southwestern desert landscapes made her one of America’s best-known and best-loved artists years before she died in 1986 at age 98, seems likely to cause long lines to form on Wilshire Boulevard.

Already about 45,000 tickets have been sold for the artist’s first extensive posthumous exhibit, and the County Museum’s membership, which has totaled about 81,000 since 1984, leaped to 84,000 after an enrollment campaign keyed to the show offered new members two free tickets, officials said.

Chiefly for conservation reasons, the local exhibit contains about 20 fewer pieces than the traveling version, but it is essentially the same show, Powell said.

O’Keeffe, who wed photographer Alfred Stieglitz, left for months at a time the man she deeply loved to paint in the New Mexican desert, and has projected a pervasive, though perhaps not entirely accurate, persona of staunch independence and reclusion.

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But it had been nearly two decades since her last major retrospective and, while everybody knew about O’Keeffe the person, “a whole generation was unfamiliar with O’Keeffe the painter,” said co-curator Juan Hamilton, representative of the O’Keeffe estate and a ceramic sculptor who cared for the artist during the last 13 years of her life. (In a much-publicized controversy, Hamilton’s share of O’Keeffe’s $79-million estate was recently reduced from 70% to 10% after relatives challenged her will.)

The exhibit, not a definitive retrospective but a selective, chronological survey, strives to remedy this ignorance about the artist, he said.

In addition to the artist’s iconic desert and flower images, there are O’Keeffe’s early charcoal drawings--the works that led to her professional discovery by Stieglitz, then a leading New York avant-garde art dealer--brilliantly colored-abstractions, views of New York and huge cloud paintings she made in her 70s.

But the show may also shine new light on O’Keeffe’s personality with a catalogue that presents some of her previously unpublished letters.

“For the first time, people are able to hear her speaking directly,” said National Gallery researcher Sarah Greenough, who edited the letters. “I think a very different side of O’Keeffe emerges.”

A correspondence from 1922 reveals that the artist loathed critics’ interpretations of her work as “shameless” or “throbbing” symbols of female sexual anatomy, Greenough said.

Tickets for “Georgia O’Keeffe” are on sale at all Ticketron locations and at the County Museum of Art. Information: (213) 857-6110.


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