For most, the name Georgia O’Keeffe summons images of the bright floral close-ups for which the artist is best known. While those paintings were central to O’Keeffe’s rise in the American art world in the 1920s and 1930s, they make up a surprisingly small percentage of her life’s work. Fittingly, the Brooklyn Museum’s new exhibition, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” includes just a few of her flower pieces. One of these, a large oil on canvas entitled “Jack in the Pulpit No. 3,” appears early on, with a label that explains: “Flowers as a theme were considered a ‘feminine’ subject in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but no one had ever painted them like her: magnified, lushly colored, and botanically detailed.”
Similarly, this exhibition, which the museum declares the first “to examine the renowned artist’s self-crafted persona,” offers us the familiar O’Keeffe from a new vantage point. Intermingled with her drawings and paintings is a selection of her personal belongings—her clothing, shoes, jewelry, and accessories—as well as portraits by acclaimed photographers. But rather than mere celebrity relics, these are presented as part and parcel of the broadest scope of O’Keeffe’s work: the creation of a life as an independent artist. The museum describes “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern” as “a homecoming of sorts”—O’Keeffe’s first solo museum exhibition was held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1927.
Wanda M. Corn, guest curator of the exhibition and author of the companion book of the same title, described the task of studying the contents of O’Keeffe’s two homes in New Mexico, now owned by the O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe: “The Georgia O’Keeffe who emerged from my research and is presented in this exhibition was an artist not only in her studio but also in her homemaking and self-fashioning.” Indeed, the many handmade (and oft-repaired) garments and repurposed accessories on display demonstrate O’Keeffe’s discerning commitment to art, not just with regard to her work but in all aspects of living. It was a trait she expressed from an early age.
In the first gallery of the exhibition, titled “Beginnings (1887–1917),” we see an already self-possessed individual and a nascent artist: a girl who preferred plain clothing to her classmates’ bows and frills, and who was characterized in her high school yearbook as “A girl who would be different, in habit, style and dress; A girl who doesn’t give a cent for men—and boys still less.”
In her biography of O’Keeffe, Roxana Robinson shares young Georgia’s first declaration, around eighth grade, of her intended career path: “I’m going to be an artist.” Later, upon graduation from an Episcopal all-girls boarding school in Virginia, where most of her classmates were the daughters of ministers, Georgia announced, “I am going to live a different life from the rest of you girls … I am going to give up everything for my art.” For the most part, O’Keeffe kept this promise, consistently prioritizing her work above all else. But her youthful disregard for men evolved as she pursued various relationships, mostly with other artists. The longest and most famous of these was with the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who made more than 330 portraits of her during their decades-long partnership. The selection of these portraits included in the exhibition shows us O’Keeffe through the eyes of her lover, a fellow artist, twenty-three years her senior, whose primary mission, according to Robinson, “was to achieve the acceptance of photography as an art form.” Stieglitz was also a passionate champion of modern art who exhibited the work of both American and European artists, including O’Keeffe, at his “291” gallery in Midtown Manhattan.
After initially following one of the few professional paths available to women at the time—teaching—O’Keeffe, with Stieglitz’s assistance, made the move to pursue her artwork full time. The couple enjoyed an austere, art-centered life in New York—a life that she continued alone in New Mexico after his death in 1946. O’Keeffe’s love affair with New Mexico had begun in 1929, when she spent her first summer there. The portion of the exhibition dedicated to those years is a blend of her brushstrokes—the burning reds and sharpened blues of what she called “my country”—and the well-worn artifacts of her daily life: her black-and-white “city clothes” replaced with threadbare denim; a beat-up, black felt cowboy hat; and a collection of silver Navajo buttons worn as pins. There is even video of O’Keeffe as tour guide, climbing windswept desert hills and discussing gardening.
Although they never met, the photographer Annie Leibovitz was so struck by O’Keeffe’s way of life in New Mexico that she photographed the artist’s two homes, in Abiquiu and at Ghost Ranch, years after her death in 1986. A sampling of these images appears in the exhibition, along with these words from Leibovitz: “Something just hit me about the way she lived. Her frugality—all of her linens were frayed—is a reminder that we don’t need much.” This is one of the most compelling parts of the exhibition, especially juxtaposed to our contemporary clutter and noise. Her home and wardrobe are a feast of simplicity; it is a relief to rest one’s eyes on these objects and just be in a space so suffused with the basic yet beautiful art of living.
Of course, this simplicity lies in stark contrast to O’Keeffe’s celebrity, which is the subject of the exhibition’s final gallery and was a point of conflict for the artist. Much like her legacy as “the flower painter,” O’Keeffe’s adoption as a feminist icon doesn’t tell the whole story. Just as she spent decades vehemently refuting theories that her flower paintings were intended to be suggestive of the female anatomy or in any way sexual, she also resisted her inclusion in the feminist movement. To one writer seeking an interview for a feminist publication, she replied, “I am tired of interviews and doubt very much that I could say anything of interest to these people.” She attributed her success entirely to her devotion and hard work; her womanhood was irrelevant.
O’Keeffe also rejected what she saw as excessive attention paid to her private life. “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant,” she wrote in 1976. “It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.” At the same time, O’Keeffe’s complicity and even delight in the creation of her public image are plain to see in the contents of the exhibition, which weaves together her work and life in such a way that the boundary between them disappears. As serious as O’Keeffe was about her art, she also had a playful side, which is evident in several of the displayed portraits. One of these, by Tony Vaccaro, shows her grinning ever so slightly as she peers back at the camera through a hole in a piece of cheese.
The ultimate success of the exhibition is not in what it tells us about O’Keeffe but in the questions it raises. During their preparations the museum curators asked themselves, is it feminist to show clothing in an exhibition about a woman? On the surface this question seems to contradict what was perhaps O’Keeffe’s foremost goal: to be recognized not as a woman artist but as an artist. Following the footsteps of her journey one wonders, did she achieve it, and furthermore, is it even possible? Eventually the curators decided to include her clothing because it represented not her womanhood but her personhood—it was part of who she was. While society may have decided that flowers and clothing are “feminine” things, for O’Keeffe they were simply her things.
Of her choice to paint flowers, O’Keeffe wrote, “Nobody sees a flower … it is so small … I’ll paint it big, and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it … I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers.” Here, this exhibition has done the same with O’Keeffe’s life. Even busy New Yorkers can take time to see what O’Keeffe saw of the world as well as what it saw of her—a big, complex picture that draws and holds the eye as effectively as one of her own canvases.
“Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” on view March 3 through July 23, 2017, is part of “A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum” (brooklynmuseum.org).