Imagine if you will, a 51-year-old Georgia O’Keeffe at the height of her fame on five-day ocean liner journey to Hawaii, clad in a muumuu and contemplating whether or not to practice the hula on the shuffleboard deck.

A strict departure from the desert New Mexican vistas that cemented her career, the artist traveled to the Big Island, Oahu, Maui and Kuai for a period of two months under contract with the Hawaiian Pineapple Co. (now Dole Food Company).

"Maybe the O'Keeffe purists would be a little surprised that O'Keeffe participated in the advertising campaign for Hawaiian Pineapple Company," Theresa Papanikolas, curator of European and American art at the Honolulu Museum of Art, tells SFR. "But the fact is that many modernist artists undertook commissions for the ads—which set it into context."

Papanikolas' extensive research on the subject birthed Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawai'i Pictures, an examination of how the Aloha State redefined the vision of these two American masters. It's currently on view at O'Keeffe's namesake museum through Sept. 14.

O'Keeffe painted 19 pieces during the time, a dozen of which populate the exhibit.

"I had the best job on this exhibition," O'Keeffe Museum curator Carolyn Kastner says. "I've been thinking about that, because as we create exhibitions here at the O'Keeffe, we're deep into the research, and Theresa has just presented us with this glorious exhibition. So it's been my beautiful job to install this wonderful show."

Though 20 years apart, O'Keeffe and Adams' little-explored chunk of time in the isles is defined by the passion with which they both reacted to their foreign environment and how it challenged them to adapt their signature styles.

"This period is pretty well-known to people who live there," Papanikolas explains during a recent tour of the exhibit. "But what really interested me and gave me a foothold in the project was the idea of place and what happens to an artist—who is so strongly associated with a specific place—when they go to a place that's not necessarily familiar to them."

The result is a captivating assemblage that challenges norms, commercial or otherwise, and widens the perceived breadth of the artists' scopes.

O’Keeffe’s “White Bird of Paradise, 1939.”
O’Keeffe’s “White Bird of Paradise, 1939.” / © GEORGIA O’KEEFFE MUSEUM

In 1939, O’Keeffe, who’s dubbed by Time magazine as the “least commercial artist in the US,” accepted a proposal by advertising mavericks NW Ayer & Son (“the Mad Men of their day,” Papanikolas points out), in a move the agency hoped would “fill the gap between fine arts and advertising.”

"Today," Papanikolas continues, "the fine arts are very market-driven and there really aren't a lot of intersections between the fine arts and commercial arts; but in the '30s, when O'Keeffe was very active, there were a lot of intersections."

Pineapple juice at the time, she points out, had been exclusively marketed promoting its health benefits. The Move was designed to tap into the exoticism of Hawaii and "make pineapple sexy."

"O'Keeffe stepped up to the occasion," Papanikolas says. The artist, who divided her time between New York and New Mexico, was persuaded by alluring travel brochures.

She negotiated her two-month stay herself and added one stipulation: She would create two works to be used in ads, and had the freedom to roam around as she saw fit, painting whatever she wanted to in the interim.

Sitting inside a borrowed station wagon and guided by the 12-year-old daughter of a sugar plantation manager, O'Keeffe created scrumptious slices of life that strayed yet somehow complimented the trademark skulls, crosses and barns that marked her oeuvre.

Adams, who traveled to the area for the second time in 1957 to shoot for a commemorative publication of the Bishop National Bank of Hawai'i (now First Hawaiian Bank) experienced similar results. Far from depicting surfers or luau scenes, Adams' take was almost an anthropological one. Pairing the natural world with its neighboring man-made environment, his photographs depicted the people and landmarks of the time, and a Hawaii on the verge of an economic and pop culture boom.

Even though a world apart from Abiquiu, Papanikolas says Adams' exhibit counterpart was also not shy when it came to adapt to her tropical surroundings.

The abundance of one of the elements that laced her career was to thank.

"Everywhere she went, people gave her flowers," she says. "They gave her leis, they gave her bouquets and she started keeping this archive of flowers."

Papanikolas stops next to the signature "White Bird of Paradise," a favorite of hers.

"All of us in Honolulu have these growing prolifically in our gardens—they're extremely invasive, hard to get rid of and they're really, really showy," she says, pointing to the life-size likeness. "She painted it in full bloom, but if you've ever seen these flowers, you know that there's all this junk—little petals that are kind of messy when they get to this stage—but she's distilled that, making this at once a botanical picture, but also an abstraction."

"So really," the curator reflects, "she started with what she knew, and that was flowers."


Through Sept. 14

Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

217 Johnson St., 946-1000