The two special exhibitions currently on view at the Montclair Art Museum, Saya Woolfalk: The Empathics and Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land, present drastically different aesthetics but have a small, yet significant, common thread– both are inspired by Native American art, of which the Museum has its own collection.

An installation shot of the case of katsina dolls on opening night. Photo by Andy Foster. Courtesy of the Montclair Art Museum.

Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land takes a new look at the artist’s fascination with New Mexico, which she visited almost yearly from her first encounter in 1929 to 1949, when she made it her permanent home. This exhibition is the first to feature a selection of little-known drawings, watercolors, and paintings of katsina dolls—carved and painted wood representations of Katsinam, or Hopi spirit beings. While this subject matter diverges with the anticipated O’Keeffe flower painting, it evokes her practice of intensely studying a singular object or feature. The exhibition establishes a context for these materials by including over 30 examples of O’Keeffe’s paintings of New Mexico’s architecture, landscape, and cultural objects as well as examples of actual katsina dolls. Her passion for the land and its associated cultures is palpable in her depictions, especially her decision to revisit subjects, such as The Black Place, a geographical feature located over 150 miles from her home in New Mexico.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), Yellow Cactus, 1935
Oil on canvas, 36 x 30 in. (91.4 x 76.2 cm.), Private Collection, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
Courtesy of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Visitors explored Saya Woolfalk: The Empathics during opening night. The central work is Becoming a Chimera (2012), a multimedia intervention on William Couper’s marble sculpture Crown for the Victor (1896). Photo by Andy Foster. Courtesy of the Montclair Art Museum.

Saya Woolfalk: The Empathics immerses the viewer in a fantastical world that illuminates a very human truth–the struggle to synthesize cultures in an increasingly global world. The exhibition takes the form of a mock ethnographic exhibit spotlighting the Empathics, a science-fiction-inspired race of anthropologists that merge cultural and biological identities as they metamorphose, taking on the characteristics of both humans and plants. Dioramas, artifacts, and even museum-style labels fictitiously written by the Institute of Empathy, a research center run by and dedicated to the study of the Empathics, utilize diverse media and kaleidoscopic colors to illustrate the story of this transformation. New, specially commissioned work is featured, including baskets inspired by Native American works in the Museum’s collection. This influence is just one of Woolfalk’s myriad sources; references to Japanese kimono fabrics, West African textiles and regalia, Brazilian Carnival costumes, Buddhist tanka paintings, and European illuminated manuscripts also appear in this exhibition. It marks her first solo museum exhibition and the second in MAM’s New Directions series.

Installation shot of Saya Woolfalk: The Empathics. Photo courtesy of Peter Jacobs.

Free First Thursday Night visitors enjoyed the full service bar provided by Egan & Sons. Their offerings included a signature cocktail, the Halcyon Martini, and a margarita inspired by Georgia O’Keeffe’s interest in the Southwest. Photo by Mike Peters. Courtesy of the Montclair Art Museum.

These exhibitions are bringing out the masses; over 1,000 people visited the first weekend these shows were open. Hundreds more came out the next Thursday for the launch of Free First Thursday Nights, a new community initiative by the Museum. They offer a full cultural experience every first Thursday of the month: visitors can enjoy live music, explore the galleries for free, and take advantage of tours, lectures, and other programs to enhance the exhibitions. The deadly Halcyon Martini, the signature cocktail from the cash bar provided by Egan & Sons, is the perfect sign off to an art-filled evening. The program changes regularly to offer guests something new each month.

Armory Show poster, 1913, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden
Smithsonian Institution, Washington D.C.

Next up in the exhibition calendar is The New Spirit: American Art in the Armory Show, 1913, opening February 17. This exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of the famous and controversial 1913 exhibition of modern art and is the first to focus primarily on American artists represented in the show.

Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land, through January 20, and Saya Woolfalk: The Empathics, through January 6, at the Montclair Art Museum, 3 South Mountain Avenue, Montclair, NJ, montclairartmuseum.org.