Amitié: Meret Oppenheim’s Miss Gardenia

Meret Oppenheim, Miss Gardenia, 1962; plaster in metal frame with metallic paint, 10 5/8 in. x 6 1/2 in. x 4 1/4 in. (26.99 cm x 16.51 cm x 10.8 cm); Collection SFMOMA, Helen Crocker Russell Memorial Fund purchase; © Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ProLitteris, Zürich

Meret Oppenheim, Miss Gardenia, 1962

A small object can pull you toward it like a magnet. I’m partial to the experience of seeing “an enormously tiny bit of a lot” as Meret Oppenheim wrote in a poem. My first apprehension of Miss Gardenia was of an astonishing object, an enigmatic presence, in the old SFMOMA sometime in the late ’80s. The air around her was palpably charged; everything else receded from view and a dense silence radiated.

One might imagine a dream in which Meret Oppenheim encounters a Cycladic goddess at a flea market. In conjoining opposing energies of simplicity and baroque excess, Miss Gardenia contains vastness. Curving plaster forms a convex ridge in the center of the relief, bringing to mind a lover’s hip bone or the base of her throat. In inverse relationship with Duchamp’s Female Fig Leaf, its sexiness is more allusive. The austere plaster surface morphs towards the bottom edge of the ornate gilt frame in a slow reveal of flower and leaf, a ghostly fusion of forms.

Another memorable sighting came during Gorgeous, the 2014 exhibition that commingled works from the collections of the Asian Art Museum and SFMOMA. The shimmering curtain of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Gold) parted to reveal Miss Gardenia poised between the golden veil of beads and the sublime Mondrian Composition (no. III) blanc-jaune / Composition with Red, Yellow, and Blue. A Qing dynasty deity nearby completed the party.

In 1936, Oppenheim created the work for which she is best known: Object, the fur-covered cup, saucer, and spoon which sent shockwaves through the culture. Alfred J. Barr Jr. purchased Object for New York’s newly established Museum of Modern Art for $50 (half the asking price), the first work by a woman acquired by the museum; as a consequence, Oppenheim is called the First Lady of MoMA. But the huge attention given to this one work dismayed the artist and, as she recounted, the fur cup became “her prison.” For some years her doubts and melancholy made work difficult for her, yet she persevered. Her early works proved generative and her explorations deepened.

As a painter, I often work with variants of white and black. I’m interested in how the myriad colors contained in these opposites create space. Part of my ethos is to try to do the most with the least. What draws me to Miss Gardenia is that within its seductive surface, akin to a white-ground lekythos, there exists a space both intimate and expansive, a fathomless mystery embodied in humble and faux fancy material of modest dimension.

Chryssa, Cycladic Book, c. 1954-55; plaster; 7 1/4 x 4 inches; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Gift of Susan Meller

Chryssa, Cycladic Book, c. 1954-55; plaster; 7 1/4 x 4 inches; University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, Gift of Susan Meller

In her “Translator’s Note” to Marcel Proust’s Chardin and Rembrandt, Jennie Feldman writes of amitiés (friendships), a term used by Proust in recognition of the profound connections we perceive between things. In my mind’s eye an amitié hovers in special proximity to Miss Gardenia and Cycladic Book, a small plaster relief by the Greek-born sculptor Chryssa. I had long known of Chryssa’s Cycladic Book series but had not seen one in person until this year, in the collection of the Berkeley Art Museum. Reverberating through time like emissaries from an archaic realm, these remarkable works speak in secret language to the present moment.

Anonymous, Marble head from the figure of a woman; Early Cycladic II, 2700–2500 B.C.; marble; h 9 15/16 in.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Christos G. Bastis

Anonymous, Marble head from the figure of a woman; Early Cycladic II, 2700–2500 B.C.; marble; h 9 15/16 in.; Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Christos G. Bastis

Comments (4)

  • Gorgeous, Léonie!

    “Curving plaster forms a convex ridge in the center of the relief, bringing to mind a lover’s hip bone or the base of her throat.”

  • The ‘The First Lady Of MOMA’; …Gardenia; it evokes a sensoria as Anonymous – ‘Early Cycladic II – Marble head from the figure of a woman’ and Chryssa-‘Cycladic Book’ and the antiquities mesh baroque calling attention to its elements all wrapped in age that speaks to the seductive nature ‘form’ in context to the narrative that Guyer speaks to—and are line ups that pair well for the eyes hungry palette.

  • Stephanie Snyder says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful piece of insight, Léonie. Through it, I am transported to the many times we’ve circled Miss Gardenia together, comparing notes of time and sensation.

    Your consideration of Gardenia in relation to Cycladic figuration is revelatory. For me, it evokes how Gardenia’s central form also emerges, literally, as a nose—as an organ of scent extending toward the plaster flowers that share her gilded frame. She’s there—en-suite—thwarting representation for the embodiment of her own experience.

  • Yes! That Miss Gardenia’s sexiness is more allusive than Duchamp’s Female Fig Leaf corresponds with the power and suggestibility of Cycladic lines where the slightest gesture of incision clearly demarcates a pair of legs or a set of eyes.

    Wonderful Léonie how your own work correlates to marking volume and space with an economy of direct gestures. Mmmm…!

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