If you are in search of Georgia O’Keeffe’s notorious floral paintings, that is not what you will find in Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum. Instead, you will encounter an aesthetic survey of O’Keeffe’s way of life and self-presentation to the world. Amidst a handful of paintings, numerous photographic portraits of the artist shot by legendary photographers and a treasure trove of her clothing is on view.
In an effort to explore and situate O’Keeffe as master of her own destiny, her commitment to being a progressive independent woman through personal style and life choices offers an interesting counterpoint to her general association with flowers. Upon entering the exhibition, a small painting of O’Keeffe by Eugene E. Speicher, dated 1908, features a 21-year-old O’Keeffe dressed in the style of the “New Woman,” a freer form of dress than the restrictive Victorian style of the era. Her choice of fashion aligned her with other forward-thinking women of the time, particularly artists and professionals.
The exhibition is separated into five themes: Beginnings (1887-1917), New York (1920s-40s), New Mexico (1930s-86), Asian Influences, and Celebrity (1970s-86). Paintings are placed throughout the exhibition space and include, florals, bones, New York cityscapes, and New Mexico landscapes. The simple, yet elegant minimalist designs that make up much of the O’Keeffe wardrobe are clearly in conversation with the lines, flow and symmetry of her paintings. The landscape of New Mexico – open blue sky, adobe style houses, and vast swaths of undeveloped land – also echo a soulful minimalism found in both O’Keeffe’s paintings and dress.
It is also clear how Asian influences in terms of design and philosophy permeate O’Keefe’s life and style. A meditative quality comes through the scenic backdrop of her life, and references to fashion via Japanese Kimonos are also evident.
It makes sense that photography, the modern medium of the 20th century, would play a role in O’Keeffe’s life and legacy. Portraits taken by iconic photographers like Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, and Irving Penn among many others offer a gorgeous view into the woman O’Keeffe aimed to personify. Scattered throughout the exhibition, her touch, through clothing choices and poses, is obvious in many of the photographs, revealing her ownership of the direction of her own visual representation. In fact, this act alone, in relation to the male gaze, may have been her most modern of all.
Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through July 23, 2017.