NMWA’s Nordic Cool

In honor of A World Apart: Anna Ancher and the Skagen Art Colony, on view through May 12, 2013, we’re researching other delightful, innovative, and interesting Danish women in the arts. Click here to learn more about NMWA’s current exhibition.

Some of the earliest seeds for NMWA’s current exhibition, A World Apart: Anna Ancher and the Skagen Art Colony, were planted nearly a decade ago when curatorial staff members visited Scandinavia to research Nordic Cool: Hot Women Designers. This exhibition, on view at NMWA during April–September 2004, was a hit, and although it was NMWA’s first-ever design exhibition, it opened the curators’ eyes to Scandinavian women artists such as fascinating Danish painter Anna Ancher.

Women in the Arts magazine cover, Spring 2004, with Nanna Ditzel's "Bench for Two," 1989

Women in the Arts magazine cover, Spring 2004, with Nanna Ditzel’s “Bench for Two,” 1989

Several of the Danish designers whose work was on view at NMWA were creating domestic-use products that addressed gender roles—such as Johnna Sølvsten Bak’s tablecloth with “iron burns incorporated into the design” as Jordana Pomeroy described in the spring 2004 issue of Women in the Arts magazine. Another example, “Danish industrial design team PAPCoRN (Lene Vad Jensen and Anne Bannick)…created compostable dinnerware from corn by-products.”

Of furniture by Nanna Ditzel—pieces with “curvilinear structures [that] would be as comfortable in a gallery as in a living room”—Pomeroy said, “Ultimately design is highly personal, often bearing traces of the artist’s hand, reflecting the proportions of the designer’s body, and deriving from the most intimate emotional memories. Ditzel’s designs flow with the human body while simultaneously drawing on other natural sources: seashells, coral, flowers, and butterflies.”

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Chakaia Booker: Evocative, Dynamic Works in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project

Chakaia Booker, Gridlock, 2008; Rubber tire and stainless steel, 2 pieces, 100 x 48 x 20 in. each; Image Franck Espich, Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York

Chakaia Booker, Gridlock, 2008; Rubber tire and stainless steel, 2 pieces, 100 x 48 x 20 in. each; Image Franck Espich, Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York

Chakaia Booker’s creative process involves exploring and exploiting the full artistic potential of rubber tires. She carefully selects tires with easy-to-cut, worn-out treads in order to transform them into her desired shapes. To fabricate her largest sculptures, Booker uses computer-aided design software, creates detailed models, and constructs armatures from pressure-treated wood and steel rods. Just as Saint Phalle merged seemingly dichotomous techniques to create her Nanas, Booker complicates the conventions of femininity by combining traditionally feminine pursuits, weaving and handiwork, with industrial technology, typically seen as a masculine domain. She uses saber saws, band saws, reciprocating saws, miter saws, and drills to form the rubber loops, shards, knots, and folds on the surfaces of her sculptures. Varying her technique—chopping, slicing, shredding, curling—Booker transforms the rigid, dense material into pliable, evocative works.

Though her sculptures are meticulously and beautifully crafted, Booker intends for her art to exist and be understood beyond aesthetics. For her, tires are a means of communicating her ideas about society, human behavior, and expression. For example, in wheels, Booker sees a paradox of human perception. Wheels suggest mobility and progress, but also the way humankind confines itself to old ideas and attitudes. Tires are analogous to the cycle of life: people start out like freshly-treaded tires, but are eventually worn down with time and experience. Tires are also a source for environmental, political, and cultural metaphors.

Chakaia Booker, Take Out, 2008; work being installed on New York Avenue outside NMWA

Chakaia Booker, Take Out, 2008; work being installed on New York Avenue outside NMWA

Booker’s abstractions may be seen as a statement of racial identity, with tread patterns evoking African motifs used in fabrics and other artwork. But they are also intended to represent cultural diversity. Through the rust stains, textures, remaining treads, movement, and coloration of the sculptures, Booker challenges preconceived notions that tires are uniformly black, encouraging people to reexamine presumptions about subject matter, human beings, and perceptions. The evocative titles of her sculptures (such as Serendipity, Spirit Hunter, and Dialogue with Myself) are based on situations that have occurred in the artist’s own life and in the lives of others. As Booker says, “My sculptures are about the recognition of a universal experience, an emotional exchange between people, and the spiritual.”

Chakaia Booker at NMWA with Acid Rain, 2001; Image Max Hirschfield

Chakaia Booker at NMWA with Acid Rain, 2001; Image Max Hirschfeld

The Sculpture Project will showcase four works by Booker, three of which she sculpted in 2008. Gridlock—a symbol of human journey and life—shows an interplay of concave and convex spaces. The title references travel patterns, which fittingly suits New York Avenue’s bustling traffic. Take Out is a whimsical piece embellished with large, looping, swirling tendrils of tire. Evoking photographs and reflections through its frame- or mirror-like rectangular shape, Take Out invites viewers to explore and engage in the New York Avenue cityscape. The smoother, more subtle Pass the Buck is inspired by Madam C. J. Walker, a National Women’s Hall of Fame honoree and early-twentieth-century businesswoman and philanthropist, best known for developing a successful line of hair-care and beauty products for black women. A tight sphere of intricate, interlocking pieces of rubber, the work symbolizes upward mobility, the pursuit of success, and giving back to society—it meaningfully underscores NMWA’s own commitment to recognizing the efforts of women artists. A fourth piece, called Shapeshifter, which Booker has specifically designed for the New York Avenue Sculpture Project, will be unveiled to the public for the first time this spring.

—Orin Zahra is a curatorial fellow at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. This article is an excerpt from “Art is Storytelling: Chakaia Booker’s work in the New York Avenue Sculpture Project,” which originally ran in the winter/spring 2012 issue of Women in the Arts magazine, NMWA’s triannual institutional publication. To receive Women in the Arts and stay up-to-date on NMWA news and exhibitions, join as a member at www.nmwa.org or call 866-875-4627.

The New York Avenue Sculpture Project is currently funded through support from NAB member Medda Gudelsky and the Homer and Martha Gudelsky Foundation. In-kind support is provided by Michelin North America Inc.

Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Jack-in-Pulpit—No. 2”: On view now at NMWA!

In a 1922 interview with the New York Sun, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) stated, “Nothing is less real than realism. Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis that we get to the real meaning of things.”1

Image of Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-Pulpit—No. 2, 1930

Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-Pulpit—No. 2, 1930; oil on canvas, 40 x 30 in.; Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe; Image courtesy the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

O’Keeffe’s “Jack-in-Pulpit” paintings were inspired by the flowers she saw around her summer home on Lake George in New York’s Adirondack Mountains. No. 2 depicts a literal step backward from No. 1, with a broader view, increased surrounding foliage, and the entire flowering portion visible. In No. 2, O’Keeffe’s color choices are less true to life, and she begins to manipulate both size and composition. O’Keeffe simplifies the flower, dramatizing its striped surface. Green leaves at the painting’s border pull back to reveal and frame the flower, functioning like a natural version of a theatrical curtain. The dark, tubular form of the jack emerges from the stem at the center of the painting. Its prime positioning suggests importance, and indeed, as the series progresses, O’Keeffe removes all extraneous elements and lets the jack stand alone.

As she implied in her 1922 interview, O’Keeffe associated the process of abstraction with a search for truth. In regard to this series, she said that the jack is “the thing that makes you interested in that flower . . . so I painted just the jack.”2 By stripping away the surrounding leaves of other plants and even the jack-in-the-pulpit’s own flower and stem, O’Keeffe reveals the essence of the flower by the final painting in the series.

While Jack-in-Pulpit—No. 2 is not as pared down and streamlined as the subsequent works in this series, it represents an important step in her process of modernist simplification. O’Keeffe often used serial paintings to work through a motif, rethinking a natural object in increasingly abstract terms with each new interpretation. She also tended to explore minute natural elements in grand scale. This had to do not only with the process of abstraction but also with building her reputation. In a statement for a 1939 exhibition, O’Keeffe explained the scale of her flower paintings: “So I said to myself—I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it—I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.”3

O’Keeffe’s use of exaggerated scale and abstraction had another effect, one that dealers and art historians have analyzed and debated intensely. Her paintings, no longer instantly recognizable as their original sources, have been the subject of a variety of anthropomorphic interpretations. O’Keeffe’s flowers and even her skyscrapers have been compared to both female and male anatomy. Her husband, photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz, encouraged such Freudian readings. He saw her work as representative of the essence of femininity, famously proclaiming upon seeing her work for the first time: “At last, a woman on paper!” He often exhibited her paintings alongside nude photographs he took of her, as if O’Keeffe’s body and work were intrinsically connected. However, O’Keeffe staunchly resisted these suggested interpretations. In the same 1939 exhibition statement, O’Keeffe wrote, “When you took time to really notice my flower you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.”

The “Jack-in-Pulpit” progression was O’Keeffe’s last significant flower series. While she still spent time at Lake George through the mid-1930s, she began traveling more frequently to New Mexico, where she painted subjects inspired by the desert landscape.

Jack-in-Pulpit—No. 2 and four of the other five paintings from this series remained in O’Keeffe’s personal collection until her death in 1986. She bequeathed this painting and three others to the National Gallery, and it has been shown in exhibitions of her work around the country.

—Catherine Southwick was graduate curatorial fellow at the National Museum of Women in the Arts in fall 2011. This article originally ran in the fall 2011 issue of Women in the Arts magazine, NMWA’s triannual institutional publication. To receive Women in the Arts and stay up-to-date on NMWA news and exhibitions, join as a member at www.nmwa.org or call 866-875-4627.


1. “I Can’t Sing, So I Paint! Says Ultra Realistic Artist; Art is Not Photography—It Is Expression of Inner Life!: Miss O’Keeffe Explains Subjective Aspect of Her Work,” New York Sun, December 5, 1922, quoted in Jonathan Stuhlman, Georgia O’Keeffe: Circling Around Abstraction (Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills Press, 2007), p. 22.

2. As quoted in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Watch and Listen Audio Guides, “Georgia O’Keeffe, Jack-in-Pulpit—No. 2, 1930.”

3. Georgia O’Keeffe, “About Myself,” Georgia O’Keeffe: Exhibition of Oils and Pastels (New York: An American Place Gallery, 1939), n.p.