Reynolda’s founding director, Barbara Babcock Millhouse, has generously promised a gift of three works of art to Reynolda House Museum of American Art— Georgia O’Keeffe’s Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills and Romare Bearden’s Alto Composite and Moonlight Express. Reynolda House has committed to improving the way its collection reflects the community by diversifying its offerings through works created by women and artists of color. The museum is soliciting gifts and creating a designated fund for new acquisitions, recognizing that the collection could become a more accurate mirror of the nation’s past and a broader and deeper celebration of its diversity. This initiative honors the collecting legacy of Barbara Millhouse, which has been characterized by a high degree of selectivity and a bold embrace of diverse perspectives in American art.
O’Keeffe, one of the most significant artists of the 20th century, is renowned for her contribution to modern art. Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills, 1937, is one of the artist’s iconic New Mexico landscapes. In 1934, O’Keeffe began staying at Ghost Ranch, a dude ranch on the eastern edge of the Jimenez mountain range of New Mexico, buying a home there in 1940. The intensely colorful geological stratification of the cliffs provided endless fascination. She said New Mexico was “a painter’s country.” At Ghost Ranch, she turned to reds, pinks, and purples to paint hills and mountains, and pinks and yellows to accurately depict the stony cliffs visible from her house. This chalky palette is contrasted in the foreground by the desiccated cedar tree, which is more sharply defined, stretching to three edges of the canvas in marked counterpoint to its particolored surroundings.
Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills will be on view at the Museum July 23-Nov. 28 as part of the two-room gallery exhibition The O’Keeffe Circle: Artist as Gallerist and Collector. Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills will join the Museum’s 1922 drawing by the artist, Pool in the Woods, Lake George.
Millhouse has also promised the gift of two collages by the celebrated African American artist Romare Bearden. In Alto Composite, 1974, the artist conveyed his deep love for jazz and blues. Using highly saturated colored paper, Bearden created a stylized, Cubist-inspired saxophone player. Unlike other collages in his 1974 Of the Blues series, which are populated with multiple figures playing music and dancing, Alto Composite includes just one musician, monumentalized against a multi-hued background. The high contrast of colors creates a sense of energy and dynamism that reflects the music that inspired the artist.
Bearden’s Moonlight Express, 1978, demonstrates the way the artist, over and over again in his work, turned to a complex set of symbols. They included masks, large hands, trains, suns and moons, “conjur” or medicine women, music and musicians, and animals of all kinds. Moonlight Express features several of these motifs. At left, the artist’s iconic train carried African Americans from their native South to new lives in the North, and sometimes back south again. In a dark forest, white birds spread their wings, which glow in the light of a full moon. And, in the lower left, Bearden has included the figure of a woman. Her nudity and her presence in the forest mark her clearly as a conjur woman, a kind of voodoo priestess who lends a note of mystery to the scene.
Both collages by Bearden will be on view in the spring of 2022 in an exhibition exploring collage as a medium.
As the Museum’s founding president, Millhouse hopes to prompt other collectors and donors to make additional gifts to further the museum’s declared initiative to diversify its fine art collection. “When the staff voiced the desire to more fully reflect racial and gender diversity in the collection, I was pleased to offer three works that I have long lived with. Much of the most interesting art of the past few decades has been made by African American artists.”
About the painting by Georgia O’Keeffe, Millhouse recalled, “I purchased Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills in 1977. At that time, the dominant mode of art was gritty, urban, often political. Performance art and Photorealism were popular. You rarely if ever saw paintings in bright and cheerful colors such as those used by O’Keeffe in the 1930s. I wanted to see if a painting in those colors--so contrary to the times--could hold my interest, and I’ve lived with the painting ever since, rising each morning to its vibrancy on the wall of my bedroom.”
Millhouse met O’Keeffe following the purchase of Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills. Millhouse recalls, “Of course, it had been many decades since she created these works. As ever, she was direct, no nonsense, and amusing. When I showed her a slide of Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills, she looked across the table and asked, ‘How much did you pay for that?’”
Reynolda House will open from Feb. 19 onward. Check the museum website for guidelines and ticketing info.