by Debbie Wells
Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum
March 3-July 23, 2017
What happens when a museum takes the art of a celebrated American artist and combines it with female empowerment, fashion, creativity, geography, and history? The result is the blockbuster exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum entitled Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern. As part of their current long term project, A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism that began in October 2016, it is surely one of the highlights of the series.
This exhibition does not solely focus on the paintings of close-ups of flowers that made her an iconic American artist. It merges the elements of her life experiences with people, nature and expression of feelings with her art. In her day, women artists were limited by society’s perceptions. But Georgia was too independent a thinker to be defined so narrowly. She took every aspect of her life and made her own decisions, from teaching art in Texas and studying at renowned New York City art academies to living as a single woman far from home. Her single-mindedness and consistency of presenting herself in her unique style helped propell her to superstardom, with the help of gallerist, photographer and husband, Alfred Steiglitz. Her dedication to a self-crafted persona was quite ahead of her time and not unlike our celebrity-driven, media obsessed branding and marketing strategies of today.
Her Midwestern roots never left her and Georgia always preferred the beauty of nature and her solitude over all. She did not want to be the typical woman covered with bows and frills. She valued the stark black and white in her dress, a gender-bending fashion that she later found she shared with Alfred Steiglitz. He too, loved the simple drama of a black cape and a sharp silhouette. Through the years, one can also see the creative obsession Steiglitz had with his much-younger wife. His serial portrait portfolio of Georgia from every conceivable angle helped promote her career just as much as his fame as a photographer.
One can see how she embraced each stage of her life through her choice of clothes, color palette and paintings. At first, she was fixated on her monochromatic fashion style while simultaneously enthralled with the colors and shapes of everything from Manhattan skyscrapers to the greenery in upstate New York. Her tastes change, for example, to the colors of the desert landscape when she moves to New Mexico. There, she adopts the look of the American Cowboy with her black hat and denim, which were definitely not the look of fashionable ladies in New York. The colors in her paintings coordinated with what she is observed in nature, including the magical hues of the sky, mountains and even bones and skulls.
Coincidentally, the Brooklyn Museum held O’Keeffe’s first solo museum exhibition in 1927. Ninety years later, the museum proudly showcases the artist with great insight on her time-honored art, as well as her personal outlook. What makes this show a winner is the story-telling quality from room to room. First, visitors are introduced to Georgia, the young girl and then her life and career choices unfold with each room. The exhibit flows beautifully from her days in New York and Lake George with Steiglitz to her years in the Southwest.
I attended the press preview to get an insider glimpse at the show before opening day on March 3rd. Curator Wanda M. Corn took the media professionals through the exhibit. She is the author of the exhibition’s book, Georgia O’Keeffe Living Modern, published by DelMonico Books. Corn, a Professor Emerita in Art History at Stanford University, has extensively researched O’Keeffe and successfully portrays a layered look at the artist through her handmade garments, photographic portraits paintings and more. During the walk, Corn pointed out one of O’Keeffe’s Brooklyn Bridge paintings to show how the artist symbolically portrayed the famous bridge as a gateway to a new experience.
Corn explained how O’Keeffe’s personal style played an important role in her modernist aesthetic. The artist was extremely committed to the core principles associated with modernism, from the way she dressed, decorated her studio and home. The exhibition layout is striking. For instance, the clothes are sometimes on displayed on mannequins and other times on plain linear clothes racks, which really showcases the workmanship of the garments and the power of the silhouettes.
The exhibition ends with O’Keefe’s interactions with other photographers and artists, including Andy Warhol, Cecil Beaton and Alexander Calder (who designed a customized handmade “OK” pin that she treasured). There is even a section where a small screen shows Calvin Klein ads with views of O’Keeffe’s home and studio to give it a southwest flavor. Most recently, Inspired by her compositions, photographer Annie Leibovitz created beautiful landscapes a la Georgia.
Whether the artwork is by her or about her in the show, it becomes clear that O’Keeffe represents the true American female spirit. As a woman, she felt it was important to not just portray an object, such as a flower. She wanted to express how she felt about that flower. Enlarging it and making it more of an abstract image was designed to make the viewer see it through her eyes and then put his or her own perceptions onto it.
Down the hall in the museum is the Judy Chicago exhibit, The Dinner Party and Georgia has her rightful place at the table alongside legendary women to real-life heroines throughout the ages. Together, I think this is an elegant and fitting tribute to Georgia O’Keeffe at the Brooklyn Museum.