Georgia O’Keeffe, Amended, at the Brooklyn Museum

Fondly dubbed “a sleeper hit” by the Met’s social media manager, Kimberly DrewGeorgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern examines O’Keeffe the artist through O’Keeffe the person––and vice versa. The exhibition, which leaves the Brooklyn Museum July 23, places items from the painter’s wardrobe alongside pieces spanning her eighty-year career in arguing for the centrality of style to O’Keeffe’s identity. This is the first time her art and garments are on display together, with the purpose of portraying just how monumental a cultural figure O’Keeffe was. Androgynous pantsuits, bandannas, black hats, Spanish capes, loose pants, and long Kimono wrap dresses help to “proclaim” O’Keeffe’s singularity and independence from traditional social roles. This distinct aura of “otherness” is deemed the root of her fame. One of America’s first celebrity artists, O’Keeffe straddled a reputation for bold sensual themes––as nurtured by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz––with an austere temperament and love of nature. Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern subtly decentralizes the unintended erotic undercurrent to her work by elevating her avant-garde, if sober, taste in clothes. It, too, the curators seem to say, can be regarded as subversive: by choosing comfort over corsetry, O’Keeffe inaugurated a new definition of elegance for a new era.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, photographed by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, circa 1920-22. Details available here. Copyright belongs to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2017.

Yet although it was mounted to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art, the exhibition’s frame is foremost aesthetic. O’Keeffe might have been honored with a place setting at Judy Chicago‘s The Dinner Party (1974–79), which resides in the Sackler wing, but her creative elan was more a matter of simple partiality than ideological radicalism. O’Keeffe wanted her distinction as an artist to be removed from her sex. She rejected the gendered, Freudian construal of her work, telling Stieglitz and the critic Paul Rosenfeld, “You write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t” (emphasis added). In 1976, she notoriously refused the request of Professors Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin* to participate in Women Artists: 1550 to 1950, a gender-based show that they were orchestrating at LACMA, because, in her words, she was not the best woman painter but “one of the best painters,” period. This affair and Nochlin’s subsequent decision to leave her in the exhibition anyway brings us to the still extant debate over whether feminism advocates equality or separation, but that is for another occasion and perhaps a different site. With or without progressive politics, O’Keeffe merits a contemporary rehashing. 2010 was when she last had a retrospective in the United States (not counting shows as her eponymous museum and those around the globe), and while that signals a track record far better than most, she is the most expensive female artist and, in the opinion of TimeOut, one of the most famous artists of all time (Frida Kahlo being the only other woman to make the cut). O’Keeffe’s brand of modernism might have been most realized through her paintings, but her edgy sophistication in attire––to be popularized by Comme de Garçons and Helmut Lang––is an unsung vehicle for its influence. After hosting O’Keeffe’s first non-commercial show in 1927, nearly a century later the Brooklyn Museum finally gives her clothes their dues.

Above: photographs of O’Keeffe’s clothing from the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Details available here, copyrights belong exclusively to Gavin Ashworth, 2017.

Sadly, not quite in the smooth, steady fashion of O’Keeffe’s paintings. Stanford University’s Wanda Corn, a prominent art historian who last tackled Gertrude Stein, organized the exhibition along with Lisa Small, the museum’s curator of European Painting and Sculpture. Corn deserves much praise for her thorough academic analysis of O’Keeffe, which manifests wholly in the accompanying catalogue, but its practical execution has its flaws. 

The exhibition reviews O’Keeffe’s studies, career trajectory, and relationships––romantic, platonic, and otherwise. It takes us from her days at girls boarding schools to her stints at several art colleges to her tenure as a teacher in Texas to her New York years with Stieglitz to her time in New Mexico and the Southwest. One enters the show through a narrow parlor presenting memorabilia from O’Keeffe’s adolescence and several shockingly beautiful early works. This is followed by a series of logistically challenged rooms that struggle to assimilate the large installations at their respective centers. At the heart of the chambers are wide, rectangular stages supporting headless mannequins draped in O’Keeffe’s garb. When the galleries fill up, these platforms can be highly obstructive, compromising visitor circulation by hampering the movements of those orbiting the surrounding walls. This issue is compounded by the haphazard positioning of busts of O’Keeffe and other sculptures in the same areas. That said, the clothing arrangements prevail over poor foot traffic owing to the magnetism of O’Keeffe’s sharp sartorial impulses. Though the threads might be dismissed by some as modest and plain, the attentive observer will find himself captivated by their individuality. Despite the provided descriptions being quite minimal, one gets the impression that each piece had its own special meaning to O’Keeffe (for example, the much-noted “OK” pin from Alexander Calder, a beloved custom brooch gifted to her in 1938). One can visualize her surveying blouses at antique stores, designing coats for a tailor to make, and sewing outfits herself in the same diligent manner that she painted. O’Keeffe favored apparel that exudes asceticism with panache. Every item, shoes and scarves included, feels exquisitely personal and uniquely “her,” much like the contents of closets belonging to Diana Vreeland or the less renowned but equally dapper Sara Berman. As Roberta Smith writes at the NY Times, O’Keeffe was just as much an archivist as anything else; she meticulously preserved her costumes for future generations, therein according them import.

Remedying any damage dealt to public opinion by the clumsy configuration of the clothes are a hundred odd photographs of O’Keeffe from the likes of Stieglitz, one of the medium’s notable grand-pères, and other industry pros: Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, Yousuf Karsh, Cecil Beaton, Andy Warhol, Bruce Weber, etc. These works animate the garments for viewers by putting O’Keeffe in them. The prints are mostly small scale, or roughly 4.5 by 3.5 inches each, a petite size that suits the drawing power of their subject. O’Keeffe is a wonderously confident and often theatric poser, with a star quality that generates a rapport between her and the audience, absorbing the role of picture-taker as she pulls viewers inside the space. She never fails to adopt graphically striking stances, carving out miniature “landscapes” where her body meets the background planes.

Above: photographs of O’Keeffe by Todd Webb, Bruce Weber, and Ansel Adams. Details available here, copyrights belong exclusively to the Brooklyn Museum and the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2017.

Even as her features grew ever more masculine with age, there was always a delicacy to O’Keeffe’s proportions. Despite the fact that they are not self-portraits in the usual sense, the photographs of O’Keeffe evince a balance of softness with aggression that is mirrored by her paintings, several of which hang beside them. But it is not only a tone of strength and grace that these works share. There is an uncanny resemblance between the forms of O’Keeffe’s physiognomy and those that adorn her canvases. Everyone knows couples that could be mistaken for siblings or people who twin with their dogs. Applying such anecdotes to the realm of art is perhaps overzealous, considering that obviously an artist’s oeuvre will reflect her being. But I will err on the side of redundancy here because I think in O’Keeffe’s case the parallels are particularly fascinating. The angles of her face, hands, and costumes that are so conspicuous in the photographs can be seen again and again in the petals of her forget-me-nots and in the cracks of her animal skulls. Thus, more than looking at her clothing, encountering O’Keeffe in the world confirms the richness of her artistry. She is a gesamtkunstwerk, Wagner’s term for a piece in full or an “all-encompassing art form.” O’Keeffe is more than a sum of her parts; she is a synthesis of reality, photographic illusion, and tangible craft. I will revert again to 19th Century German: she achieves “gestalt.”

Above: a photograph of O’Keeffe by Alfred Steiglitz; two paintings by O’Keeffe, Clam and Mussel (1956) and Line and Curve (1927). Details available here, copyrights belong exclusively to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and the National Gallery of Art, 2017.

As if with an acute self-awareness, O’Keeffe charms the camera into doing her bidding rather than the other way around. She alone controls the images, most of which were shot in Santa Fe, her primary place of residence from 1929 and onwards. It is an habitat where O’Keeffe found artistic renewal and refuge from various crises, her houses near Abiquiu and at Ghost Ranch serving as the kind of private creative quarters Virginia Woolf prescribed in A Room of One’s Own. Her relocation from New York to the Southwest is heavily explored in the show. Not unexpectedly, the change of environment precipitated shifts in O’Keeffe’s art and dress as she embraced hills, mountains, and blue jeans. She also hosted like-minded migrants such as Joni Mitchell and Allen Ginsberg (as well as, Charles and Anne Lindbergh). It was at her Abiquiu property which she restored and converted to a studio, that, in 1977, O’Keeffe received Perry Miller Adato, who filmed the artist and her assistant for a PBS documentary. Some of Adato’s footage is projected onto a screen in one of the exhibition’s final corridors, showing an elderly but sanguine O’Keeffe in her element. Communicating with the same gentle intimacy that she brought to the photographs, O’Keeffe discusses her life and work, delivering a combination of wit and wisdom that makes the tape worth watching. (You can find it here).

Pilgrims young and old continue to journey to New Mexico in search of the very same serenity O’Keeffe discovered when she first travelled to Taos with her friend Rebecca Strand. Her eponymous Santa Fe museum has been attended by almost 3 million people since its opening in 1997, which is half the number of annual visitors to the Met but a remarkable statistic all the same. In augmenting the scope of O’Keeffe’s artistry, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern will surely add more devotees to this list.

*of “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” acclaim.

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