Worlds apart

“The calendars just don’t do it justice, do they?”

The museumgoer who offered this observation and I were studying the same Georgia O’Keeffe painting, one of several now on view at the Asheville Art Museum as part of its latest exhibit, The Nature of Inspiration (the third and last installment of a collaboration with New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art).

Her question was largely rhetorical, if a bit wistful: It’s never a major surprise when an original masterpiece’s glory outshines that of its ubiquitous mini-clones. More notably, the woman’s child (who couldn’t have been older than 8) actually seemed to recognize another of O’Keeffe’s pieces, displayed nearby — a testimony to that artist’s signature style and enduring notoriety.

Why do some painters’ works echo so insistently and become reproduced so prolifically that their mass-produced offspring are eventually consumed with the same casual pleasure one might show toward a plate of french fries, while other artists’ creations — perhaps equally engaging, momentous, evocative — remain forever the exclusive domain of “serious” art lovers?

Such, it seems, is the fickle nature of inspiration. And while the art “fashion trends” of the moment undoubtedly influence the urge to brighten a kitchen, office cubicle or dorm room with the prints of one artist versus another, some deeper chord of consensual appreciation must underlie such trends. What makes one particular interpretation of a flower universally beguiling?

Moreover, what was it about that flower (or tree, or cloud, or cliff, or wave cap) that seduced the work’s creator to begin with?

While not overtly answering those elusive questions, The Nature of Inspiration uniquely showcases the work of six American artists who lived in the first half of the 20th century and honored the outdoors in their creations — whether through landscapes or on a “micro” level. All approached their work knowing that its final impact would depend on their ability to render their chosen subject not just objectively, but intimately; showing, in the words of the exhibit’s curators, “the nature of the subject, as well as their emotional reaction to that subject.”

For the purposes of this exhibit, the pieces have been paired off, matching artists whose works play off one another — in many cases to profound effect.

O’Keeffe’s paintings are shown alongside the sculptures of Alexander Calder, a Pennsylvania-born artist who spent the first part of his professional career in Paris. Both were captivated by the perpetual inner mechanics of nature; where the painter offers evidence of abundance in that world, Calder shapes his ideas in spare, direct lines. Not surprisingly, the sculptor enjoyed a creative surge during World War II, newly inspired by the challenge of having to compensate for a sudden lack of artistic supplies (a wartime hardship experienced by many artists). His bronze piece “Snake on a Post” features the title creature curled around an urn-shaped base, its head poised in the air like a question mark. O’Keeffe’s oil painting, “The White Calico Flower” — a lush close-up of silently rippling petals that subtly complements the snake form — is displayed nearby.

“Flower Abstraction” is the name O’Keeffe gave to an extravagant, sunset-hued rendition of her pet subject. Mentally erase the seething layers and you have Calder’s slim, radar-like “Pistil” — the dark skeleton of the flower, but no less exotic for its severity.

The watercolor landscapes of Charles Burchfield weep so concurrently with joy and grief that attempting to separate these charged expressions in each work is a pointless exercise; the conviction that a “realistic” depiction of nature must also be an emotional one was central to this New York artist’s work.

His piece “An April Mood” shows a raw spring field spiritually dominated by luxurious storm clouds, while “Goldenrod in December” explores that peculiar early-winter sunlight that can burn so significantly, before snow arrives to numb its impact.

Burchfield’s paintings are sequestered with those of famed realist Edward Hopper — whose tense, decisive interpretations of American scenes are as conservative of passion as Burchfield’s are rich with it. Hopper’s landscapes are dramatically still and eerily lacking human habitation. The lime-green knolls and blank white sky of “Le Parc de Saint-Cloud” constitute no charming pastoral. Rather, the scene is almost fearful (or at least expectant) — a summer setting translated as a held breath.

“Railroad Crossing” is an engrossing work whose importance comes from an enigmatic source: An abandoned-looking house inhabits the center of the canvas, set oddly close to a railroad track. The other main “character” is a tree, blowing meaningfully to the right. Is it the wind’s force that projects the painting’s cold but enthralling sense of melancholy? Perhaps. But much of its emotional impact is due to Hopper’s intelligent use of light to draw poignancy from neutral objects.

Interestingly, Hopper’s “7 a.m.” — another study of light (this time as reflected, somewhat ominously, from the front porch of a house) — is displayed next to Burchfield’s “Winter Twilight.” The latter work represents a departure from the artist’s other exhibited pieces, both in medium (it’s done in oil instead of watercolor) and in mood: Here, a smattering of storefronts is sharply delineated with brightness and shadow, in a manner reminiscent of Hopper. From the shelter of one doorway, a man gazes out at an arctic wasteland, a landscape far too severe to be touched by the street lamp’s artificial warmth.

“You cannot create a work of art unless the things you behold respond to something within you. … It is this ‘moving of me’ that I try to express … the different emotions that have been called into being.” This quote belongs to John Marin, a painter whose work was considerably influenced by American Impressionism, though he himself was never considered an Impressionist.

Marin’s “White Horses: Sea Movement off Deer Isle” and “Wave on Rock” are joyful maritime abstractions that keep excellent company with the paintings of his New England-based peer, Marsden Hartley. The latter’s “The Blast of Winter” — whose central, splashy image is similar to the one in Marin’s “Wave on Rock” — also channels Impressionism: Monet-like in feel, the piece is distinguished by an uplifting shade of wildflower blue.

But Hartley’s “Robin Hood Cove, Georgetown, Maine” holds no such peace. This potently textured forest-and-lake scene is a composition of breathtaking contrasts. Black and pink are the primary colors; in this case, their blending suggests both an ordinary sunrise and a violent, prehistoric dreamworld.

Asheville Art Museum Director Pam Myers hopes that the careful placement of the six artists’ works — both within their paired settings and in relation to the other pieces in the show — will inspire viewers to new levels of appreciation.

“My experience has always been that, as you move work and pair it with one thing or another, it almost inevitably takes on new properties,” she observes.

Myers’ intention in offering numerous works by a handful of artists — rather than presenting a sweeping survey exhibit encompassing entire artistic movement, such as the museum’s previous Whitney-collaborated shows Abstractions and In the City — is to create a more vital bond between museumgoer and artwork. “The six artists are, of course, finding their inspiration from nature, and translating it quite differently,” Myers relates. “By showing many [examples] of certain artists’ work — a whole series of Hartleys, or a whole series of Hoppers — you can span a period of subject matter, as well as time.

“The exhibition offers multiple layers that visitors can explore,” she concludes.

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