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Kansas City Unveils New Museum And Unknown O'Keeffe Works

THE public got its first look at the new Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art and Design Oct. 2, and along with it, a first look at some rare 70-year-old watercolors by Georgia O'Keeffe.

The museum, the first in the state of Missouri devoted exclusively to contemporary art and design, is the result of $6.6 million gift to the Kansas City Art Institute from R. Crosby Kemper, a local banker, his wife, Bebe Kemper, and various Kemper family foundations. The 23,000-square-foot one-story building was designed by architect Gunnar Birkerts, a prot of the famed Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen. The soaring lines of the stainless-steel roof and the sculptural forms of the building - inside and out - are reminiscent of some of his mentor's most celebrated designs, especially the TWA Terminal at Kennedy Airport in New York.

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Visitors pass through a hooded entrance to a central atrium topped by a 22-foot-high skylight. The two wings, for galleries and administrative offices, extend from the atrium like the wings of an airplane. The main gallery, measuring 8,000 square feet, will be used for displaying works from the permanent collection as well as visiting exhibitions. A smaller gallery will feature rotating exhibitions of photographs and works on paper. Artwork is also on display in the atrium, the corridors, the outdoor sculpture courtyard, and even in the cafe, where a permanent installation of 110 oil paintings is hung. The work of contemporary American artist Frederick James Brown, these depict scenes from the history of art, from cave painting to the present.

The museum opens with an exhibit of selections from the Bebe and Crosby Kemper Collection, which forms the core of the Art Institute's permanent collection. Virtually every major contributor to contemporary art from the 1950s to the present is represented: Jasper Johns, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, David Hockney, and Nancy Graves, among many others. Also on display are objects from the design collection, including chairs by Harry Bertoia and Charles and Ray Eames, and dinnerware by Russell Wright.

For museumgoers who can't get enough of Georgia O'Keeffe, 28 recently discovered watercolors by the artist are on view in the smaller gallery. Painted between 1916 and 1918 while she was working in Canyon, Texas, as the head of the art department of West Texas State Normal College (now Texas A&M University), they were hidden away until 1988 and are on public view here for the first time. Although they were never intended to be a series, these loosely painted, often abstract works have come to be known as the ``Canyon Suite.''

The artist moved to western Texas in her late 20s, determined to break free of the constraints of her formal art education. Inspired by the beauty and isolation of the Texas plains, the young artist used the landscape as a jumping-off point for her interest in design, abstraction, and color, creating more than 50 works on various types of paper that would become ``the most radical and experimental work she ever did,'' according to Barbara Bloemink, the museum's director and curator.

``They provide a whole new chapter to our knowledge of O'Keeffe that really has not been fully explored before,'' Ms. Bloemink says. ``They offer a whole other view of her than what people normally think of as O'Keeffe.''

The most striking thing about them is the brilliant colors. Despite having been painted a long time ago, and some of them on cheap paper, they are in excellent condition.

Watercolors are rare in O'Keeffe's oeuvre. Soon after she completed these, the artist moved to New York and worked almost exclusively in oil, returning to watercolor at the end of her life. The ones on display at the Kemper were given by O'Keeffe to Ted Reid, a close friend and a student at the college. Reid chose to keep the watercolors hidden and wrapped in brown paper, and gave them to a friend to keep for his granddaughter. They resurfaced after Reid's death in 1988.

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``There are very few opportunities to look at a concentrated period of an artist's life,'' Bloemink says. ``One of the most exemplary things about this collection is that we really get a sense of the artist's mind working ... and that's entirely due to the fact tht the collector insisted on keeping them all together. Otherwise that wouldn't be possible.''

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