Tags for: Georgia O’Keeffe
  • Magazine Article
  • Exhibitions

Georgia O’Keeffe

The artist's life and work reflect her strikingly unconventional style
Mark Cole, Curator of American Painting and Sculpture
October 19, 2018
Morning Glory with Black, 1926. Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887–1986). 1958.42

Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern delves into the fascinating connections between the artist’s paintings, personal style, and public persona, illustrating how she defied convention and forged a fiercely independent identity throughout her 65-year career. Organized by the Brooklyn Museum with guest curator Wanda M. Corn and featuring paintings, drawings, and sculptures alongside her garments—many shown for the first time—and photographic portraits of her as a subject, the exhibition reveals O’Keeffe’s determination to be strikingly modern not only in her art but also in her life.

Black Pansy & Forget-Me-Nots (Pansy), 1926. Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887–1986). Oil on canvas; 68.9 x 31.1 cm. Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Alfred S. Rossin, 28.521. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Photo: Christine Gant, Brooklyn Museum

Rejecting the restrained Victorian world into which she was born, O’Keeffe absorbed the progressive principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, which promoted the idea that everything a person made or chose to live with—art, clothing, home decor—should reflect a unified and visually pleasing aesthetic. Even the smallest acts of daily life, she liked to say, should be done beautifully, a philosophy reinforced by her long-standing study of the arts of Japan and China. In addition, as part of her efforts to escape the traditional feminine roles and expectations she found restrictive, O’Keeffe embraced elements of gender nonconformity.

Georgia O’Keeffe, c. 1920–22. Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946). Gelatin silver print; 11.4 x 9 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, 2003.01.006

Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern is chronologically organized to chart her artistic development and renown. During the 1920s and ’30s, as her career blossomed in New York, a restricted black-and-white palette dominated much of her art and dress. An accomplished seamstress, she almost certainly made the majority of her clothes at this time, including an expertly pin-tucked linen blouse with a modest decoration derived from nature, an interest reflected more prominently in her paintings of trees, leaves, and flowers. She became particularly well known for floral subjects rendered in close-up, three of which are highlighted in the exhibition. Throughout this period, O’Keeffe’s husband, Alfred Stieglitz, created a series of photographic portraits of her, which helped cement her image as an audacious woman.

The Mountain, New Mexico, 1931. Georgia O’Keeffe. Oil on canvas; 76.4 x 91.8 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase 32.14. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Digital image © Whitney Museum, New York

During O’Keeffe’s mature years in rural New Mexico, where she moved permanently after Stieglitz’s death, her modern aesthetic changed in response to the surrounding colors of the American Southwest. In her art, O’Keeffe drew upon the new subjects and colors of her adopted landscape—bright blue skies, brown adobe, pink and red cliffs—rendering them in her distinctive abstracted style. While she continued to dress primarily in black and white for the camera, particularly for formal portraits, O’Keeffe adopted a more casual style, wearing blue jeans (which she referred to as America’s only “national costume”) and a felt vaquero hat, its elemental geometries appealing to her streamlined aesthetic. Eventually O’Keeffe purchased and remodeled two adobe homes in remote areas north of Santa Fe: a small cottage at Ghost Ranch and a larger house with trees and gardens in the village of Abiquiú, both of which provided artistic inspiration.

Blouse (detail), c. early to mid-1930s. Attributed to Georgia O’Keeffe. White linen. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Gift of Juan and Anna Marie Hamilton, 2000.03.248. Photo: Gavin Ashworth, © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Garnering increasing fame and publicity during her final decades, O’Keeffe became a national celebrity, as famous for how she lived as for what she painted: career-minded feminists embraced her as a role model; artists turned to her for inspiration and advice; and a youthful counterculture admired her independent lifestyle. Even Andy Warhol, who had long incorporated celebrity-chasing into his artistic repertoire, sought her out. Many photographers, including Ansel Adams and Mary E. Nichols, made pilgrimages to capture her likeness. O’Keeffe dressed in impeccably tailored black suits by designers such as Balenciaga, embodying a toughness, austerity, and individualism befitting someone who had lived life on her own terms. When O’Keeffe died in 1986 at age 98, she had earned her reputation as an American original tempered by age into a Zen-like state of grace.    

Georgia O’Keeffe in Abiquiú Patio, 1981. Mary E. Nichols. Chromogenic print; 25.4 x 20.2 cm. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, 2006.6.953

Cleveland Art, November/December 2018