The Georgia O’Keeffe show at the Brooklyn Museum is an ode to the artist as icon. The exhibit combines little-seen early work with the artist’s own clothing–including dresses, jeans, shoes, and hats—as well as photographs taken by her famous husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and a dozen or so other noted photographers, to illustrate the extent to which O’Keefe — much like Warhol — was the brilliant architect of her own enduring image.
From the time of her early days as Steiglitz’s model, lover, and wife, O‘Keeffe learned to brand herself, creating a minimalist, Modernist style, elegant and timeless. In her own way, O’Keeffe was an avatar of “female agency,” who created her own singular look, environment and artwork, all inextricably entwined.
By bringing a sharp-eyed focus to O’Keeffe’s original, highly refined aesthetic, this exquisitely researched and curated show goes a long distance in diminishing the Hallmark Card haziness that has grown, like moss, around O’Keeffe’s most popular and best-known work, her genitally-inflected flowers. Wanda M. Corn thoroughly immersed herself in O’Keeffe’s remarkable archives, which in addition to a vast array of letters, photographs, and art works, includes a rich trove of personal artifacts, such as her oft-mended garments — many of them hand-made by O’keeffe herself and carefully preserved in her closets — as well as her shoes, accessories and choice pieces of jewelry. Corn uses the German word, Gesamtkunstwerk, to describe the deliberately seamless conjunction of O’Keefe’s life and work, beautifully exemplified by this exhibition.
The show is divided into four parts, organized chronologically, starting with an entry section, “Beginnings,” that functions as a brief introduction to her early years. We see O’Keeffe in photographs as a young, and surprisingly conventional-looking, pretty young woman. We also get a glimpse of her early watercolors, already indicative of her minimalist bent, with one Art Deco-ish exception. By 1917, O’Keeffe, still living in Texas — although she had just recently met Stieglitz in New York and had her work shown in his 291 gallery — was already garbed in artist’s black.
And then, by the next section, which includes photographs, paintings and clothing from the 1920s and 30s, the leap to the O’Keeffe of legend: an imposing 1927 portrait of an androgynous O’Keefe, regal to the point of being almost forbidding, by Alfred Stieglitz, her husband of three years. The portrait was taken at Lake George, where Georgia and Alfred spent summers with Stieglitz’s family.
Other portraits, from 1918 through 1932, show something of the evolution of Stieglitz’s and O’Keeffe’s collaborative stylization of her image, which she continued to actively refine and distill into a personal brand, extending it to her furnishing and homes, for the rest of her life. Her clothing of the time, blouses and dresses that she designed and sewed, starts out simple and primarily white, its only adornments delicate pleats and ruffles. The art in this room includes just a single of the more familiar-looking floral images, a slightly suggestive Jack in the pulpit. There are several paintings of shells, of autumn leaves, a striking image of the Brooklyn Bridge, and an abstract vision of 1932 Manhattan. A stunning black belted dress, and a dramatic cape by Zoe de Salle, displayed center stage, could best be described as Quaker meets Paris.
O’Keeffe began the next great love affair of her life, with New Mexico, in 1929, a place she called the “Faraway.” “I feel I am growing very tall and straight inside—and very still,” she wrote to Stieglitz after her first foray into the American Southwest. She returned there for summers to paint, leaving Stieglitz in New York. She bought Ghost Ranch, and relocated there in 1940, although she remained married to Stieglitz until his death in 1946. Her art, her wardrobe and her other personal objects would continue to reflect her extraordinary “tallness, straightness and stillness” until her own death, in 1986, at 98.
The third section of the show is devoted to O’Keeffe’s total New Mexican immersion. Her black-and-white wardrobe palette expands into blues, including indigo and denim blue, and these bright colors are also reflected in her art. A single corner of this room succinctly sums it up: A show-stopping black-and-white Emilio Pucci “Chute” dress, with black borders running from bodice to skirt, creating a sort of graphic elongated corset, is framed on either side by two O’Keeffe abstract paintings in blue, black and white. “In the Patio, IX,” with its bright turquoise bordered by a sharp black chevron shape, perfectly echoes the dress’s austere geometry, (accentuated by a bold black belt criss-crossed with silver, by Mexican designer Hector Aguilar). As do the two framed sets of 1964 black-and-white Polaroids O’Keeffe took of Glen Canyon. Dress, art, and Southwestern landscape (in this case Arizona), all brilliantly refracting off each other, just as they did in O’Keeffe’s own fabled life.
The next, smaller room illustrates the influence of Asia on O’Keeffe’s clothing style, and includes several examples of her collection of kimonos and Japanese sandals. In the following room, various garments, including a belted dress and wrap by Claire McCardell, dresses by the Finnish company Marimekko, and the black suits custom-made for O’Keeffe by Knize, who also tailored clothes for Marlene Dietrich, further display her unique clothing aesthetic. But no fashion-icon show would be complete without shoes: and there are also a dozen or so intimate-looking examples of the flats O’Keeffe favored, in different colors and materials.
By this time, O’Keeffe’s celebrity status and iconic image were well-established, indeed cemented, as a global brand, and it is this period of her life that is documented in this fifth and last section. Inevitably, Andy Warhol himself did O’Keeffe’s portrait in 1980, first taking the obligatory Polaroid and then doing a diamond-dusted silk screen. In 1983, he posed with one of the world’s other most famous artists for a photo shoot by Factory photographer Christopher Makos.
There are also photographs of O’Keeffe by the likes of Bruce Weber, Todd Webb, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton, Paul Strand and Ansel Adams. And there is a charming, short video in which O’Keeffe is seen in her New Mexican homes, Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu, explaining how she came to live there. And, finally, the elderly but still notably brisk O’Keeffe striding to the top of a peak in her beloved, stark New Mexican landscape.
The Brooklyn Museum’s show, “O’Keeffe, Living Modern,” accomplishes something rare: it enables the viewer to see an over-familiar artist in an entirely new light. Like Warhol, O’Keeffe was famously private. But the Brooklyn show, (in a refreshing departure from the sometimes over-exposed O’Keefe imagery of sexually-flared flowers and bleached cow skulls) opens up her closets and drawers to reveal the personal process behind the careful, self-curated creation of her famously private image. And it further stamps her status as a powerful 20th century pioneer.
The exhibition runs through July 23.
Phoebe Hoban has written about culture and the arts for a variety of publications, including The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s Bazaar, ARTnews, and The New York Observer, among others. She is the author of three artist biographies: Basquiat: A Quick Killing in Art, (1998), published as an e-book in May, 2016; Alice Neel: The Art of Not Sitting Pretty, (2010) and Lucian Freud: Eyes Wide Open, (2014).