April 26, 2017

"Georgia O'Keeffe" @ The Brooklyn Museum

The paintings of Georgia O'Keeffe are as familiar to the American audience as portraits of George Washington or Norman Rockwell magazine covers.  Indeed her flower paintings and her cow skulls have come to symbolize the Southwestern United States in all its Modernist splendor and reinforced her stature as an icon of Feminism.  But what most people don't know, is how carefully she crafted her public persona and how closely her life imitated her art, or vise verse.

On view now at the Brooklyn Museum is the special exhibition "Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern", a rather intimate look at the woman behind the celebrity. Tracing O'Keeffe's history from her childhood on a Wisconsin farm, through her early teaching years in Virginia and Texas and her beginning success as an artist to her ultimate renown as the doyenne of Modernism, the curators present an interesting perspective on who, exactly, was Georgia O'Keeffe.

By positioning O'Keeffe as an advocate of the Arts and Crafts philosophy of beauty being the sum of harmonious and visually pleasing pieces, the exhibition shows her to be a master of creating her own, unique personal and professional aura.  Fascinated with the power of clothing since her youth, O'Keeffe used her wardrobe not only as an expression of style but to establish herself as an independent woman and as an artist.  Examples of fashion illustration done when she was still in her teens show an accomplished drafts person and someone who already knew how to profit from her artistic talents.

"Woman with Blue Hat", c.1916-17
Watercolor and gouache

The first galleries are centered around groups of clothing probably made and certainly worn by O'Keeffe as a young woman in the 1920s.  These cream-colored tunic-style dresses are stunningly simple but feature exquisite details such as pin tucks and bows.

The black overcoats are more severe and dramatic but also show an eye for design.

The black and white palate was perfect for being photographed by the many artists who endeavored to capture her image on film, most famously her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, whose portrayals epitomize her elegance and style.

After Stieglitz's death in 1946, O'Keeffe was free to spend more time in New Mexico.  Her wardrobe reflected the move with the colors she saw, and painted, in the new landscape.  While black and white remained predominant, especially for photographs, there were occasional glimpses of blue (like the sky) and sometimes even red (like the mountains).

 "Hills - Lavender,  Ghost Ranch, New Mexico II", 1935

Especially interesting was the way that her clothing and paintings were intertwined.  Like the scalloped edge on this "Varjo" dress by Marimekko, circa 1963...

and the frame on this painting.

"Ram's Head, White Hollyhock-Hills", 1935
With sheet metal frame by George Ot

Or the deep "V" of this "Chute" dress by Emilio Pucci, circa 1954...

reflected in both Polaroid photographs taken by O'Keeffe on a river rafting trip in Glen Canyon in 1964...

 and painted in this abstraction of the view from her patio in Abiquiu, New Mexico...

Georgia O'Keeffe led a long and full life and carefully preserved her image right up until the end.  When she died in 1986, O'Keeffe still owned nearly a dozen bespoke black suits made for her by tailors in New York and Hong Kong and worn when traveling to cities or entertaining guests in New Mexico.  This highly curated wardrobe was of great importance in the identity Georgia O'Keeffe showed the world and helped solidify her iconic status among American artists which endures to this day.

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