NEW YORK >> Finding out Georgia O’Keeffe had a Hawaiian period is kind of like finding out Brian Wilson had a desert period.
But here it is: “Georgia O’Keeffe: Visions of Hawaiʻi,” 17 eye-popping paradisal paintings, produced in a nine-week visit in 1939, on display at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx through Oct. 28.
It is the first time the largely unknown group has been shown together since its original exhibition in 1940 at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery, An American Place, in New York. In addition, there are two oil sketches never before exhibited. And not a bleached skull in sight.
As with previous shows on artists — including Frida Kahlo and Claude Monet — the garden has also mounted a living display of the subjects depicted in the artworks, and more. In the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory are more than 300 tropical plant types, representing the three major groups of flora in Hawaii. (For now, a safer field trip than a visit to the wilds of the Big Island, where Kilauea won’t stop erupting.)
“A kiss to you — soft and quiet like this air,” O’Keeffe wrote to Stieglitz, her husband, upon her arrival in Honolulu.
That air is palpable in the humidly colored, freshly amplified palette of her paintings of hibiscus, wild ginger, pink ornamental banana, and the sea and landscapes in the library gallery, with its muted gray background, as meditatively sensual as a Hawaiian open-air church.
That air also hangs, warmly spiced, in the conservatory, with a profuse display of the natural exoticism of the islands that goes well beyond the painter’s depiction. O’Keeffe painted what she encountered, and what any tourist would have admired staying in a resort hotel on Waikiki Beach: the spectacular show flowers, like bird of paradise, that are synonymous with Hawaii — near-clichés of the tropics, and nonindigenous, they are modern introductions from South America and elsewhere.
“Every single portrait she painted — the heliconia, calliandra — they’re all imported,” Todd Forrest, the garden’s vice president for horticulture and living collections, said of O’Keeffe’s output. “That’s the sort of flora people have in their mind’s eye when they think of the islands.”
Later in her trip, on outer islands like Maui, O’Keeffe began a deeper encounter with Hawaii’s unique environment. But missing from her vision, as eager to absorb the overwhelming newness of the place as she was, were Hawaii’s true nobility: the hundreds upon hundreds of native species that exist nowhere else.
To its credit, the conservatory has represented them too, a group rarer to see than even the paintings. The garden is also staging a full cultural complement of demonstrations and activities, from hula performances and lei-making to ukulele players and poke trucks.
O’Keeffe, of course, is an art world star, one of the first of the 20th century’s artists singled out for celebrity. Her larger-than-life flowers are famous too. Since 1924, she had studied and depicted them — gone to the startling heart of them — with her original style. She holds the record at auction for a painting by a woman: $44.4 million for her 1932 floral still life, “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1.” Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, which purchased it in 2014, has its own O’Keeffe exhibition opening on May 26.
O’Keeffe was already a celebrity in 1939 when at 51, self-created and self-confident, she was asked by N.W. Ayer & Son, a Philadelphia advertising agency, to travel to the islands to produce two print-ad images for the Hawaiian Pineapple Co., later Dole. Not known for commercial work, O’Keeffe had completed a commission in 1936 — what would be the largest of her flower paintings — for the Elizabeth Arden Sport Salon in New York.
“Most people buy pictures more through their ears than their eyes,” she wrote in a letter in 1922. “One must sell to live — so one must be written about and talked about.”
Theresa Papanikolas, deputy director at the Honolulu Museum of Art, and curator of the art gallery component of the garden’s show, said of O’Keeffe’s Hawaiian assignment, “She was one of the few artists in America who could actually support themselves through their painting, so she didn’t need it.” But with critics’ carping beginning to appear about the “been there seen that” quality of her revisitations of the Southwest, and domestic tremors at home in her relationship with Stieglitz, it was time for a change.
“What she wanted was an adventure,” Papanikolas said.
Intensifying interest in O’Keeffe as both a painter and a personality, and a surfeit of recent shows, are now bringing forward her less known work, like the Hawaiian paintings, the curator explained.
As John Updike wrote of Vladimir Nabokov’s arrival in America, the Russian writer discovered a subject as large as his talent. One feels this of the painter’s travels, too.
The paintings in the Bronx, and their almost psychedelic palette, are as flesh-like and physical as O’Keeffe’s New Mexican work is stripped and metaphysical. Her familiar artistic devices of scaling up and cropping closely to magnify subjects, and give them power, is overwhelmed by views of Hawaii’s island-size volcanic mountains. “Really sort of unbelievable,” she wrote to Stieglitz, as she tried matching Hawaii’s surreality with the abstraction of her art.
Although O’Keeffe is surely the draw, the other star of the garden’s show, fittingly, is Hawaii. As much as they might look like the products of an artist’s imagination, the plants and flowers in the conservatory are boastfully real. Twenty-five hundred miles from the nearest continental landmass, adrift in oceanic isolation, the Hawaiian islands taken together are the most habitat-diverse place on the planet, according to Samuel ʻOhukaniʻōhiʻa Gon III, a scientist with the Nature Conservancy of Hawaii and an adviser to the garden’s show. Writing in the show’s catalog, Gon points out that of its 1,200 native plant species, 90 percent exist nowhere else but Hawaii.
“Many of the native plants are endangered and therefore they can’t be shipped,” explained Francisca Coelho, who designed the edenic installation. The garden worked with the National Tropical Botanical Garden in Hawaii, which provided cuttings and seedlings of natives legally transportable.
“We really wanted the state flower — the yellow-flowering hibiscus Brackenridgei,” Marc Hachadourian, director of the Nolen Greenhouses at the New York Botanical Garden, said. “It’s federally endangered. You can’t ship it across state lines.”
It is a sad emblem for a horticulture, and culture, under siege by development — a paradise being lost. Ten percent of Hawaii’s native species are extinct; half of those remaining are at risk, a story that the garden also tells in its show.
There are also culturally significant canoe plants in and outside the conservatory — like palms, used for thatching, and taro, a foodstuff — brought by Polynesian settlers roughly 1,500 years ago.
And there are tiny groves of pineapples. O’Keeffe cavalierly neglected to paint any while she was in Hawaii on Dole’s dime. Her sponsors had to send her a pineapple when she got back to New York. Ignoring that, she painted a pineapple plant from her memory of being in the fields — a budding fruit guarded like a queen by its threatening wreath of swordlike leaves and fire-colored dirt.
“I laughed so hard,” said Christine Gentes, who was visiting the garden from Chicago with her daughter and sister. “She did it for an ad and turned it into a painting. I mean, she really resisted. Artists never like to do that kind of work.”
The three women were wearing orchids in their hair, provided at the garden’s entrance as part of the cresting wave of “Aloha” descending on the garden. “Aloha nights” will feature — what else? — tropical cocktail hours. There was, on opening weekend, enough steel guitar on the breeze to make your bones go soft. But you’ll probably let them.
As O’Keeffe conceded in a letter late in the trip, written from Maui, when she stopped to let the stilled, pristine atmosphere of Hawaii sink in, “Not bad at all.”