Georgia O’Keeffe is known in the art world as “The Mother of Modernism.” She was the highest paid female artist in America within just a decade after moving to New York in 1918, and she herself became the subject of other artist’s work throughout her life. One does not gain a reputation like that overnight. O’Keeffe was truly an artist who dedicated her life to her craft, and her unique artistic vision.
The current exhibit at The Brooklyn Museum, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, examines not just O’Keeffe’s life, and not just her art, but looks at how there was really no difference between the two. O’Keeffe was an artist who truly lived her art. From the clothes she wore, to the places she lived, to the people she was friends with, it’s impossible to draw a line between where her art ended, and the artist began.
The exhibit follows O’Keeffe’s life from when she first moved to New York City in 1918, through her move to New Mexico in 1929, where she would live out the rest of her days until her death at the age of 98 in 1986.
In each section of the exhibit, clothes from O’Keeffe’s personal wardrobe are intercut with her paintings, and portraits of her, to display how her personal style reflected and created the artistic concepts she was living at any given time. Many of the the clothes were made by O’Keeffe herself, showing the dedication she put into literally handcrafting her own image.
Not even the photos taken of her by other artists like Ansel Adams or Alfred Stieglitz (who she would later marry) break from the austere, almost Gothic image she had created for herself. The exhibit makes note that she knew the power of photographs to persist after she was gone, carrying on her self-styled image well after her death.
The public image O’Keeffe cultivated is not what one would call “inviting.” Her clothes themselves reflect the severity of the Victorian era she was born into, but are always elegantly practical, a display of the mobility and liberation she found as a woman of the time. Often, she bought garments made by tailors and intended for men. They shift from delicate, feminine lace garments, to masculine suit coats, a display of the way O’Keeffe played with gendered expectations of her appearance.
Her artistry even extended to where she decided to live. In a documentary towards the end of the exhibit, O’Keeffe is interviewed about choosing to buy and live in the so-called “Ghost Ranch” in New Mexico. She states that what drove her to buy the property was a particular door she fell in love with, that other places she looked at were fine but, “None of them had that door.”
It’s been noted by celebrities and artists like Andy Warhol and Lady Gaga that a highly cultivated, artistic appearance can be a way of keeping the public always talking about your art, even when they were talking about you. O’Keeffe seems to resonate with this sentiment as you pass through the exhibit. When public attention can be concentrated on outward appearances, the artist is free to do their art, without the public prying too deep into their private life. By the end of the exhibit, you feel like you know everything and nothing about her, or maybe only what she wanted you to know about her.
Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern is showing now, and will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum until July 23.