“Nothing is less real than realism ― details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get the real meaning of things.” – Georgia O’Keeffe
Georgia O’Keeffe is undoubtedly considered one of America’s greatest and most influential painters. She was a key figure in the emergence and advancement of American modernism and produced an extensive body of work over the course of seventy working years. Her skill for capturing color, light, and form via her most frequently featured subjects—landscapes, cityscapes, desert skies, bones, and (of course) flowers—was nuanced and centered in her sense of place.
Her iconic flower paintings are lush with color and have been interpreted as evocations of female genitalia. Photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s husband and promoter, encouraged Freudian comparisons, but O’Keeffe was uncomfortable with what she felt were degrading analyses of her work made by male artists; she fought to assert her own voice. She wrote to her friend Mabel Dodge Luhan, “I thought you could write something about me that men can’t – What I want written – I do not know – I have no definite idea of what it should be – but a woman who has lived many things and who sees lines and colors as an expression of living – might say something that a man can’t – I feel there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore – Men have done all they can do about it.”
O’Keeffe’s ownership of her femininity and her image are examined in Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern. The exhibition examines what they believe to be a well-crafted persona created by a truly independent artist, through photograph portraits and the artist’s wardrobe. Her clothing is displayed alongside photographs and O’Keeffe’s paintings as a way to demonstrate how fully she claimed and curated her identity throughout her career. Living Modern suggests that the artist was modern art’s first real “celebrity” and that she used clothing in a calculated way, to solidify her persona.
The collection documents her early years, where she established a simple style of dress and a cosmetic-free face, her time in New York when she adopted a stark black-and-white palette, and her years in New Mexico where her clothing became a reflection of her more vibrant surroundings. Until her later years, O’Keeffe wore black and white suits with a headscarf or hat and loose-fitting garments like kimonos—almost always in black. She learned to sew at an early age and made her own clothing over the years, but also leaned on a core group of designers and commissioned custom items. Her style was indelible: minimal, androgynous, and carefully thought out. The exhibition’s curator Wanda Corn explains, “She’s an artist of distillation. She takes something and brings it down to a very purist and minimalist aesthetic. She didn’t do big buttons, ruffles, lace.”
“Everyone wanted to redress her to make her appear more feminine,” Corn explains. Instead, she used clothing to demand agency in a male-dominated field. In the days before social media and message-driven branding, O’Keefe (much like Frida Kahlo) used her clothing to establish a deliberate aesthetic and identity—and to reinforce a commitment to her values and to her personal philosophies.
Click here for more information and to watch a video about the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition.