A painting Georgia O’Keeffe thought no one would want has been restored at a cost of $145,000.
The results are on display at Santa Fe’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum through Oct. 10. Conservators spent 1,250 hours restoring the work. It was last seen by the public in 2019.
Water damage likely caused by a tarantula tunneling through the artist’s Abiquiú mud roof left the 7-by-4-foot “Spring” (1948) cracking. The painting combines such O’Keeffe trademarks as the Pedernal, a large vertebra, an antler and desert primroses. It was the largest canvas the artist had painted up to that point.
Conservation head Dale Kronkright called the job the most massive restoration project he has ever worked on. A $75,000 Bank of America grant funded part of the work, while the museum’s operating budget paid for the rest.
A trio of conservators were faced with repairing not only the water damage, but previous restoration work that had failed. It had also been varnished, a process no longer used in conservation.
“The damage is consistent with it being stacked against another painting,” Kronkright added. “It’s clear at some point that it was sanded. It was almost as if the paint had been pulled 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. The artist moved permanently to Abiquiú in 1948. “Spring” coincided with her remodeling of what had been an 18th century adobe home.
“What is striking is the floating vertebra,” O’Keeffe Museum Curator Ariel Plotek said. “The bone (and antler set) is actually in the museum’s collection.
“In many ways, it feels like a work that is a statement about this new chapter in her life,” he continued. “The primrose is associated with mourning; the bones are connected to death. It’s interpreted as kind of a memorial to Alfred Stieglitz.”
“Spring” also represented a stylistic departure for O’Keeffe. Gone are the massive flowers and the primary colors in exchange for pastels and pale spaces of white.
“The fact that she kept it for several decades shows it was important to her,” Plotek added.
In letters to her New York gallerist Edith Halpert, O’Keeffe wrote that she didn’t know if anyone else would like it.
By 2019, the multimillion dollar painting was a shadow of its former self, Plotek said.
After the water damage, O’Keeffe sent “Spring” to her personal New York conservator Caroline Keck, calling it “unmanageable and hard to clean.” Keck restretched and cleaned the canvas. Ultraviolet light showed large sponge marks on the painting, likely attempts by the artist to clean it, Kronkright said.
Keck in-painted the water damage and lined the work with a second canvas using a combination of wax and resin.
“There were hundred of cracks in the lower right,” Kronkright said. “Many white pigments in oil start to become translucent over time.”
The museum acquired the painting when it opened in 1997.
Across its 74 years of existence, O’Keeffe’s paint was growing darker as the white grew more transparent. The many repairs became increasingly visible, Kronkright said.
Analysis showed six areas across “Spring’s” top half had lost their original paint.
“It was almost as if the paint had been pulled off,” he added. “They were having a hard time matching the colors. The entire upper third of the painting was overpainted.”
Conservators removed 95% of an acrylic “scumble” glaze using a gelled solvent that would not affect the original paint. Imaging technology through infrared photography revealed more than 3,000 cracks, Kronkright said. Restorers used an adhesive solvent to reconnect them.
“The three of us worked in three different areas moving all the time,” he added.
Today the completed work is being displayed at the museum alongside the original vertebra and antlers.
“Spring” will travel to the San Diego Museum of Art in 2023.