Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Jane Ford:
October 21, 2010 — Walk into the University of Virginia Art Museum's Print Study Gallery and you are immediately struck by Georgia O'Keeffe's painting "Red Hills."
The painting – on loan from the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., through December – depicts a landscape with an improbable combination of colors. The gently rolling hills are cadmium red and the sky is various shades of mauve and yellow.
O'Keeffe attended the University for four summers, taking classes and later teaching them between 1912 and 1916. She owned a copy of U.Va. professor William A. Lambeth's book on trees and often went hiking and camping in the mountains. O'Keeffe's consideration of the landscape – perhaps O'Keeffe's memory of the Blue Ridge – is an example of the modernist approach to abstraction, according to Elizabeth Hutton Turner, vice provost for the arts and professor of art history in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences, who is teaching a fall seminar on American modernism.
"Red Hills" is a subject of study for Turner's students, who are focusing on the "Stieglitz Circle" of American artists, composed of photographer Alfred Stieglitz and painters Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, John Marin and Arthur Dove – all artists whose work the late Duncan Phillips collected and exhibited at the Phillips Memorial Gallery, later becoming the core of the what is now known as The Phillips Collection, founded in 1921, the oldest modern museum in America.
"With their exploration of color, abstraction and technique, the modernist artists thought they were re-inventing the art of painting," Turner said.
"Red Hills" is the pivotal work in the U.Va. Art Museum's exhibit, "Alfred Stieglitz, Gallery 291 and Georgia O’Keeffe: Nature, Art and Abstraction," which Turner's class curated. In addition to the O'Keeffe painting, they selected works from the museum's collection and created an "experiment station," an idea for juxtaposing artworks to generate new ways of perceiving the works and to engender critical debate. Both Phillips and Stieglitz espoused that approach to exhibiting art. Stieglitz was an avid promoter of modernism and was the first in America to exhibit works by Picasso and Rodin at his Gallery 291 in New York City.
The students used Gallery 291 and the Phillips Collection as inspiration, choosing and juxtaposing objects to inspire new ways of considering the works. They took the idea of the experiment station and "put it into play," said Jennifer Stettler Parsons, an art history Ph.D. candidate in the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
"The exhibit is really about the birth of modernism," she said. "We chose objects from the U.Va. collection by artists of Stieglitz's circle or that were exhibited in Gallery 291."
On exhibit are works by photographers Stieglitz, Edward Weston, Edward Steichen and Ansel Adams, painters Joseph Stella and O'Keeffe, prints by Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Henrí Matisse – as well as examples of influences that inspired the modernists, including a mask from the Guro people of Africa's Ivory Coast and a Japanese temple bell from the Edo period.
By adopting this approach, Turner said, "We are constantly asking, 'What if …'?' There are deep implications for learning by positioning and thinking about objects in space. These exhibits are not the final word, but the first word.
"In the class we are looking at a slice of history and utilizing those practices to begin to create a new idea for a teaching museum," she said.
In addition to choosing the objects to display, the students were responsible for researching the objects and creating the label text.
In the role of curator, the class was involved in all the behind-the-scenes steps required to put the exhibition together. When "Red Hills" arrived at the museum, the class watched as Richmond Conservation Studio conservator Scott Nolley checked its condition and compared his observations against documentation prepared each time the painting is removed from storage or shipped.
Fourth-year student Danielle Barnes, an art history major in the College, said she appreciates the in-depth and varied experiences the class offers. A self-proclaimed O'Keeffe lover, she said being able to closely study her use of styles in "Red Hills" – long, smooth brushstrokes for the hills and short, quick ones to create texture for the sun and sky – was "a spiritual experience."
The students created an accompanying exhibit for the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, based on the library's almost-complete collection of the journal "Camera Work," a publication that Stieglitz produced from 1903 to 1917. The journal juxtaposes photography with art criticism.
"Stieglitz wanted photography to be seen as fine art. The quality of the photogravures in this journal are rare," Parsons said.
After two classes in the archives and further research on their own, the students designed four display cases using the "Camera Work" collection and another Stieglitz publication, "manuscript," also referred to as "MMS," to help answer what was then a provocative question: Can A Photograph Have the Significance of a Work of Art? Two cases, located in the hall just outside the Special Collections Library, are currently on display and will be swapped out with the other two later in the semester.
"Through this object-based study, the class is putting into practice ideas about exhibition, publication and critical debate and exploring how culture is created and how culture brings about change," Turner said. "They are putting into action the idea of exhibition as inquiry."
The students are extending the inquiry online. They are preparing to hold Facebook discussions about the artists they are studying and their before-and-after impressions of object-based research and learning.
Throughout the semester, the students visit the Phillips Collection to further research American modernism by studying the art objects as well as primary documents in the collection archives. Each has selected a work of art from the collection and met with Phillips conservators individually to help them understand the artwork as primary source material.
"At the Phillips we were invited to look at the works under ultraviolet and infrared lighting, showing us different layers of paint and sometimes preparatory pencil lines. This allowed us to hypothesize how the works might have changed as they were painted and better understand the artist's process," Parsons said.
The students will combine their research and object-study experiences at U.Va. and the Phillips to prepare papers that they will present as lectures in a public forum at the Phillips at the end of the semester.
U.Va. and the Phillips Collection launched a partnership last spring with a science and art event, in which University faculty visited the Phillips to present their research in an atmosphere designed to encourage new ways of thinking and critical debate to create "new ideas," Turner said.
Parsons, the art history doctoral student, praised Turner's approach. "Her passion and enthusiasm as a teacher are contagious, and her method of taking the class outside the classroom is not only a lesson in art history, but also a lesson in curating exhibits," she said. "It is gratifying to see results of research and writing so quickly and to get people's reactions and have real-time experiences."