“Spring,” Georgia O’Keeffe, 1948. Oil on canvas, 48 1/4 x 84 1/4 in., Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Burnett Foundation Gift, Private Collection. (Courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)
A painting that Georgia O’Keeffe thought no one would want has been restored for $ 145,000.
The results are on display at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe through October 10th. Restorers spent 1,250 hours restoring the work. It was last seen by the public in 2019.
Water damage, likely caused by a tarantula digging through the artist’s Abiquiú mud roof, cracked 7 by 4 foot “Spring” (1948). The painting combines O’Keeffe hallmarks such as the pedernal, a large vertebra, antlers, and desert primroses. It was the largest canvas the artist had ever painted.
Conservation chief Dale Kronkright described the contract as the largest restoration project he has ever worked on. A $ 75,000 grant from Bank of America funded some of the work, while the museum’s operating budget paid the rest.
A trio of restorers not only had to repair the water damage, but also earlier, failed restoration work. It was also painted, a process that is no longer used in conservation.
“The damage coincides with stacking it with another painting,” added Kronkright. “At some point it becomes clear that it has been sharpened. It was almost as if the paint had been peeled off. “
O’Keeffe had recently returned from New York, where she had spent three years settling the estate of her late husband, the impresario Alfred Stieglitz. In 1948 the artist finally moved to Abiquiú. “Spring” coincided with the renovation of a former mud house from the 18th century.
“What is striking is the floating vortex,” said Ariel Plotek, curator of the O’Keeffe Museum. “The bones (and the antlers) are actually in the museum’s collection.
“In many ways it feels like a piece of work that is a statement on this new chapter in your life,” he continued. “The primrose is associated with grief; the bones are associated with death. It is interpreted as a kind of memorial for Alfred Stieglitz. “
Dale Kronkright, Director of Historic Preservation at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
For O’Keeffe, too, “Spring” meant a stylistic breakthrough. Gone are the massive flowers and the primary colors in exchange for pastel tones and pale whites.
“The fact that she kept it for several decades shows that it was important to her,” added Plotek.
In letters to her New York gallery owner Edith Halpert, O’Keeffe wrote that she didn’t know if anyone else would like it.
By 2019, the multi-million dollar painting was a shadow of its former self, Plotek said.
After the water damage, O’Keeffe sent “Spring” to her personal New York restorer Caroline Keck, calling it “unwieldy and difficult to clean”. Boldly stretched and cleaned the canvas. Ultraviolet light showed large sponge stains on the painting, likely attempts by the artist to clean it, Kronkright said.
Keck painted in the water damage and lined the work with a second canvas with a combination of wax and resin.
“There were hundreds of cracks in the lower right,” said Kronkright. “Many white pigments in oil become translucent over time.”
The museum acquired the painting when it opened in 1997.
During its 74-year existence, O’Keeffe’s color grew darker as the white became more transparent. The many repairs have become more and more visible, said Kronkright.
Analysis showed that six areas in the top half of Spring had lost their original color.
“It was almost like the paint had been peeled off,” he added. “You had difficulty assigning the colors. The entire upper third of the painting was painted over. “
Restorers removed 95% of an acrylic glaze with a gelled solvent that would not damage the original color. Imaging technology through infrared photography has uncovered more than 3,000 cracks, Kronkright said. Restorers used an adhesive solvent to reattach them.
“The three of us worked in three different areas all the time and moved all the time,” he added.
Today the finished work is exhibited in the museum alongside the original vertebrae and antlers.
“Spring” will travel to the San Diego Museum of Art in 2023.