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Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern

DATES March 3, 2017 through July 23, 2017
ORGANIZING DEPARTMENT Special Exhibition
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  • Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern
    Georgia O’Keeffe has never allowed her life to be one thing and her painting another.
    —Frances O’Brien, a longtime friend (1927)

    Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) is one of the iconic figures in modern American art, celebrated for her early abstractions, and paintings of flowers and animal bones. Yet even though her paintings are familiar classics of twentieth-century art, and the circumstances of her life are well known, there is still much to discover about how she created her identity beyond the studio. This exhibition takes a new look at how O’Keeffe integrated the modernity of her art and her life, exploring how she used clothing and the way she posed for the camera to shape her public persona. Though she dressed for personal comfort and ease, her wardrobe played a meaningful role in her aesthetic universe; she understood how clothes helped create and reinforce her image as an independent woman and artist.

    Rejecting the staid Victorian world into which she was born, O’Keeffe absorbed the progressive principles of the Arts and Crafts Movement, which promoted the idea that everything a person made or chose to live with—art, clothing, home décor—should reflect a unified and visually pleasing aesthetic. Even the smallest acts of daily life, she liked to say, should be done beautifully, a philosophy reinforced by her study and appreciation for the arts and cultures of Japan and China.

    O’Keeffe applied these principles to her lifestyle comprehensively. The elemental, abstracted forms and serial investigations that characterized her art were also evident in her clothing. Whether hand sewn by her, custom made, or bought off the rack, her garments and the way she styled them emphasized her preference for compact shapes, simple lines, organic silhouettes, and minimal ornamentation. Highlights from sixty years of her wardrobe are presented here alongside her paintings to point out these similarities. Her living spaces—from the austere New York City apartment she shared with Alfred Stieglitz, to her two homes in New Mexico, where her décor melded a spare regional style with high midcentury modern—further demonstrate the self-created visual unity of her life and art.

    The many photographic portraits made of O’Keeffe over the course of her life narrate the evolution of a strikingly coherent personal style. They reveal how carefully she dressed and posed for the camera, and how the photographic gaze so often bore witness to the deliberate alliance between the artist’s attire, her art, and her homes. For O’Keeffe, photography played an essential role in shaping and promoting her public identity and helped establish her present-day status—enduring, but to her, unintentional—as an icon of feminism and fashion.
  • Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern Credits
    Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern is part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, a yearlong series of ten exhibitions celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Leadership support is provided by Elizabeth A. Sackler, the Ford Foundation, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, Anne Klein, the Calvin Klein Family Foundation, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, Mary Jo and Ted Shen, and an anonymous donor. Generous support is also provided by Annette Blum, the Taylor Foundation, the Antonia and Vladimer Kulaev Cultural Heritage Fund, Beth Dozoretz, The Cowles Charitable Trust, and Almine Rech Gallery.

    Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern is organized by guest curator Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor Emerita in Art History, Stanford University, and coordinated by Lisa Small, Senior Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, Brooklyn Museum.

    Lead sponsorship for this exhibition is provided by the Calvin Klein Family Foundation.

    Generous support is also provided by Anne Klein, Bank of America, the Helene Zucker Seeman Memorial Exhibition Fund, Christie’s, Almine Rech Gallery, and the Alturas Foundation. The accompanying book is supported by the Wyeth Foundation for American Art and the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation and is published by the Brooklyn Museum in association with DelMonico Books • Prestel.

    We are grateful to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, whose collaborative participation made this exhibition possible.
  • Beginnings
    Born on a Wisconsin farm in 1887, O’Keeffe moved with her family to Virginia at age fifteen. After excelling in high school art classes, she took two years of formal art training, one year in Chicago and another in New York, where she was a star pupil and a favorite model for her fellow students. When family finances became precarious, she sought employment as an art teacher, one of the few professions then open to women with her skills. She taught first in Virginia and then, in 1912, went to Texas to teach for two years in the new Amarillo high school. In 1916, she took a prestigious position directing the art program at a new teachers’ college in Canyon, Texas. There, wearing loose black dresses with flat shoes—radically out of character with the dress code of a small town—she became the subject of local curiosity and gossip.

    During her teaching years, O’Keeffe came into contact with the influential writings and pedagogy of Arthur Wesley Dow, a painter and printmaker who dismissed the idea of art as an imitative medium and advocated for modern abstraction. One of O’Keeffe’s first deliberate acts as a modernist was to reform the curricula she encountered in the Texas schools where she taught.

    She threw out the textbooks that urged artists to copy nature and focused instead on the beauty of pattern and design. She liked to summarize Dow’s philosophy as “filling space in a beautiful way,” and this could be as mundane as where one placed a stamp on an envelope or how one dressed in clearly defined black and white shapes.

    In 1916 a friend showed O’Keeffe’s first charcoal abstractions to Alfred Stieglitz, the influential photographer and champion of modern art. He found them so striking that he put a few of them in a group show in his gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue and, in 1917, gave her a one-person exhibition. Around this time, Stieglitz made his first photographic portraits of O’Keeffe, and the two began a courtship by correspondence; he convinced her to leave her Texas teaching post and come to New York to devote herself full time to painting.
  • New York
    When O’Keeffe moved to New York in 1918, she began an intimate partnership with Stieglitz; they lived together for six years before marrying in 1924. Stieglitz was twenty-three years older than O’Keeffe and had considerable experience launching American artists’ careers. Beginning in 1923, he organized exhibitions and showcased her work on a nearly annual basis, building her career. He also organized her first museum exhibition, here at the Brooklyn Museum in 1927. It was in these early years of their relationship that he embarked on his epic photographic portrait series of her. Showing her in predominantly black and white garments and close-fitting hats, these images, when exhibited and published, created the artist’s public persona as an audacious, modern woman.

    O’Keeffe likely made most of her clothes in these early years, just as she had as a teacher. She favored silks, cottons, and wools and a two-color palette of white and black. Her designs featured strong silhouettes and little or no ornamentation. She took pride in her handiwork, as she preserved some of her early garments for well over sixty years.
  • New Mexico
    Ever since her days on the Texas Panhandle, O’Keeffe had harbored a deep affection for the big skies and openness of the American West. In 1929, craving a break from routine summers at Lake George, New York, with Stieglitz and his family, she and her artist friend Rebecca Strand took the train to New Mexico for a three-month stay at the Taos compound of arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. O’Keeffe felt so exhilarated and productive that she named northern New Mexico “my country” and determined to come back as often as possible to paint there. She began to spend late spring and summer in New Mexico, returning to Stieglitz and Lake George in the fall, when it was quiet enough for her to work. In winter, the couple went to their apartment in Manhattan, which O’Keeffe had sparingly decorated with animal bones and Navajo rugs from out West.

    After Stieglitz died, in 1946, she moved permanently to New Mexico, where she became a “regional modernist,” fusing the traditions and materials of the Southwest with her modern tastes. She acquired two homes in rural New Mexico, both conventional adobe structures that she modified by adding midcentury picture windows and designer furniture. In her art, she drew upon the new motifs and colors of her adopted landscape—bright blue skies, white animal bones, brown adobe, and pink and red stony cliffs—but painted them in her distinctive style of bold colors and abstract forms. While she continued to dress primarily in black and white for the camera, particularly for formal portraits, O’Keeffe became more casual in New Mexico, wearing denim and adding new colors to her wardrobe.
  • Asian Influences
    The teacher Arthur Wesley Dow introduced O’Keeffe to the arts and cultures of Japan and China, and she became a lifelong student of Eastern traditions. She visited American museums with major Asian collections and built an impressive private library that included books on Asian art, calligraphy, gardens, tea, and poetry. After Stieglitz died, she traveled to many new places, including Japan, China, and India. She visited gardens, temples, and museums, finding reinforcement for the central idea by which she lived: everything in one’s environment should be beautiful and unified in a style of simplicity and understatement.

    From her early years in New York, O’Keeffe collected kimonos to wear around the house, and in her later years adopted a kimono-like wrap dress as her signature outfit. Traveling to Hong Kong in her seventies, she bought off-the-rack garments and accessories, and ordered custom-made coats and dress suits in local silks incorporating details like mandarin collars and frog button closures.
  • O'Keeffe's Homes as Seen in the Press
    This monitor shows a selection of American magazine articles about O’Keeffe’s work, her homes, and her unintended status as a fashion muse. Starting in the 1960s, her New Mexico homes—the summer adobe bungalow in Ghost Ranch and the much larger house and gardens at Abiquiu—were of particular interest to the media.

    Laura Gilpin wrote the first of such pieces, for House Beautiful in 1963, accompanied by her own photographs. Two years later, House and Garden sent Balthazar Korab to photograph the Abiquiu house. Korab recalled that he did not have to rearrange O’Keeffe’s furniture or use artificial light because “everything was right in place” and let in enough sunlight “to convey the character of the place.” He fondly remembered the “chairs by Eames, Saarinen, Bertoia, Navaho rugs and her beloved collection of stones, bones and roots.” She also owned at least two Barwa lounge chairs, designed by Edgar Bartolucci and Jack Waldheim in 1947, and two or more butterfly chairs, designed by Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy in 1938.

    These same spaces have also served as backdrops for fashion shoots, with models evoking O’Keeffe’s aesthetic in minimal, usually black and white clothes.
  • Celebrity
    O’Keeffe always maintained a strong following among art lovers, and her stature as one of the country’s first and most significant modernists was secure. But in the late 1960s and 1970s her audience expanded and she became a celebrity, occupying a special place in the popular imagination. Feminists embraced her as a role model for women who wanted satisfying careers; to a youthful counterculture she became known not only as an artist, but also for her face, dress, and independent lifestyle. What Stieglitz had started in the 1920s, circulating photographs of her austerely dressed body and meditative face, continued after his death with a new generation of photographers constructing images of the artist as a dignified and mysterious older woman, a visionary of sorts, living what appeared to be a solitary, simple life in the American desert.

    As O’Keeffe’s fame increased, she initiated two signature outfits: a simple wrap dress, and a tailored suit. She owned multiple versions of these ensembles, some in different colors, but for professional photographs she usually elected to wear them in black, encouraging the longtime perception that it was the only color in her wardrobe. In some portraits, she presented the remote, contemplative visage of a mystic or saint, replaying a favorite trope first developed with Stieglitz. For other photographers, steeped in the visual vocabulary of the fashion world and the professional studio, she adopted more stylized poses, many amid the adobe, bones, and rocks that marked her own domestic sphere. Always in black, she embodied a quintessential American toughness, plainness, and individualism, tempered by age into a state of grace. When she died in 1986, at the age of ninety-nine, she had become an American icon.
  • Composition: A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers
    O’Keeffe’s first introduction to the arts and cultures of Asia came through the modernist artist and influential teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, whose ideas radicalized her artistic practice. Dow urged students to study Japanese prints for their abstract compositions and to abandon all forms of pictorial imitation, especially Western modes of perspective and modeling. These avant-garde ideas led O’Keeffe to make her first abstractions.

    Dow’s ideas were disseminated widely through his book Composition (1899), which was heavily illustrated with Japanese examples. The color woodcut The Long Road, hanging here, in which the landscape is rendered as an almost abstract arrangement of colors and shapes, shows Dow exploring this new sensibility in his own work.
  • On Being a "Woman Artist"
    The pure, now flaming, now icy colours of this painter, reveal the woman polarizing herself, accepting fully the nature long denied, spiritualizing her sex. Her art is gloriously female. Her great painful and ecstatic climaxes make us at last to know something the man has always wanted to know…. The organs that differentiate the sex speak.
    —Paul Rosenfeld (1921)

    The two documents shown here, written half a century apart, demonstrate how O’Keeffe has been made the subject of critical and cultural discourse about women who make art.

    Alfred Stieglitz was the first to interpret her art as a series of revelations of the female body. “The woman receives the World through her Womb,” he wrote. “That is the seat of her deepest feeling. Mind comes second.” Art critics like Paul Rosenfeld, quoted above, elaborated upon this proposition, finding a woman’s body and psyche expressed at every turn in O’Keeffe’s painting.

    In the mid-1920s, O’Keeffe became increasingly hostile to this relentless gendering and spoke out against her Freudian critics. They “sound so strange and far removed from what I feel of myself. They make me seem like some strange unearthly sort of a creature floating in the art—breathing in clouds for nourishment—when the truth is that I like beef steak—and like it rare at that.”

    In the 1970s, O’Keeffe became a heroine of second-wave feminists, who admired her successful and unwavering commitment to being a full-time artist in a male-dominated profession. When a young artist wrote in 1973 asking for an interview so that “young aspiring women artists could identify with their heritage,” O’Keeffe, whose usual advice to this constituency was to “just work hard,” responded: “I am tired of interviews and I doubt very much that I could say anything of interest to these people.” The upset recipient printed the letter in The Feminist Art Journal, adding, “ ‘These people’ are the same people she was part of when she started out.”

    The year before, feminist artist Judy Chicago had asked O’Keeffe’s permission to reproduce one of her paintings in the book Through the Flower: My Struggle as a Woman Artist. O’Keeffe declined through her representative, who wrote: “Miss O’Keeffe has never thought of herself as a ‘woman artist’ and consequently has never knowingly participated in exhibitions or publications based on this theme. She feels that one is a good painter or one is not, and that sex is not the basis of this difference.” Stung by this response from an artist so personally and professionally important to her, Chicago countered: “Miss O’Keeffe, you may have never suffered as a woman artist, but I and many other women have. We need you to be with us, not against us.”

    Chicago would go on to honor O’Keeffe for opening up new territory for women artists. Chicago included her, along with thirty-two other women, in her monumental installation The Dinner Party (permanently on view in the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art).
  • O'Keeffe's Homes as Seen in the Press
    This monitor shows a selection of American magazine articles about O’Keeffe’s work, her homes, and her unintended status as a fashion muse. Starting in the 1960s, her New Mexico homes—the summer adobe bungalow in Ghost Ranch and the much larger house and gardens at Abiquiu—were of particular interest to the media.

    Laura Gilpin wrote the first of such pieces, for House Beautiful in 1963, accompanied by her own photographs. Two years later, House and Garden sent Balthazar Korab to photograph the Abiquiu house. Korab recalled that he did not have to rearrange O’Keeffe’s furniture or use artificial light because “everything was right in place” and let in enough sunlight “to convey the character of the place.” He fondly remembered the “chairs by Eames, Saarinen, Bertoia, Navaho rugs and her beloved collection of stones, bones and roots.” She also owned at least two Barwa lounge chairs, designed by Edgar Bartolucci and Jack Waldheim in 1947, and two or more butterfly chairs, designed by Jorge Ferrari-Hardoy in 1938.

    These same spaces have also served as backdrops for fashion shoots, with models evoking O’Keeffe’s aesthetic in minimal, usually black and white clothes.
  • January 23, 2017 Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern offers a new look at the iconic American artist’s powerful ownership of her identity as an artist and a woman. This major exhibition examines the modernist persona that Georgia O’Keeffe crafted for herself through her art, her dress, and her progressive, independent lifestyle. It will mark the first time O’Keeffe’s understated yet remarkable wardrobe will be presented in dialogue with key paintings, photographs, jewelry, accessories, and ephemera. Opening on March 3, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern represents a homecoming of sorts, as the artist had her first solo museum exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, in 1927.

    On view through July 23, 2017, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern is part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, a yearlong project celebrating a decade of feminist thinking at the Brooklyn Museum.

    In addition to a number of O’Keeffe’s key paintings and never-before-exhibited selections from her wardrobe, the exhibition will also feature portraits of her by such luminary photographers as Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Philippe Halsman, Yousuf Karsh, Todd Webb, Cecil Beaton, Bruce Weber, Annie Leibovitz, and others. These images, along with the garments and artworks on view, testify to the ways that O’Keeffe learned to use photographic sittings as a way to construct her persona, framing her status as a pioneer of modernism and as a style icon.

    “Fifteen years ago I learned that when Georgia O’Keeffe died and left her two homes to her estate, her closets were filled with her belongings. The O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe now owns the homes and their contents, but no one had yet studied the sixty years of dresses, coats, suits, casual wear, and accessories she left behind. I took on that task. 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,” says guest curator, Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor Emerita in Art History, Stanford University.

    “This exhibition reveals O’Keeffe’s commitment to core principles associated with modernism—minimalism, seriality, simplification—not only in her art, but also in her distinctive style of dress,” says Lisa Small, Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, Brooklyn Museum, who serves as the exhibition’s in-house coordinator.

    Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern opens with an introduction that demonstrates how O’Keeffe began to craft her signature clothing style as a high school student, dispensing with the bows and frills worn by young women at the time. The exhibition continues in four parts. The first is devoted to New York in the 1920s and ’30s, when she lived with Alfred Stieglitz and made many of her own clothes. It also examines Stieglitz’s multi-year, serial portrait project, which ultimately helped her to become one of the most photographed American artists in history and contributed to her understanding of photography’s power to shape her public image.

    Her years in New Mexico comprise the second section, in which the desert landscape—surrounded by color in the yellows, pinks, and reds of rocks and cliffs, and the blue sky—influenced her painting and dress palette. A small third section explores the influence and importance of Asian aesthetics in her personal style. The final section displays images made after Steiglitz’s era by photographers who came to visit her in the Southwest.

    Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern is a ticketed exhibition. The cost is $20 for adults, $12 for students with valid I.D. and adults 62 and over; $12 for Corporate Members; and $6 for students, ages 12–19. The exhibition is free for Individual Members at the $75 level and above. On Target First Saturdays and Thursday Nights, admission to the exhibition will cost $12. Tickets, which also include general Museum admission, will be available at www.brooklynmuseum.org and at the admissions desk in the Museum’s lobby. Advance tickets go on sale January 23, 2017.

    Following the Brooklyn Museum, the exhibition will go to the Reynolda House Museum of American Art, August 25 –November 19, 2017, and to the Peabody Essex Museum, December 16, 2017–April 1, 2018. A companion book of the same title, written by curator Wanda M. Corn, will accompany the exhibition.

    About A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum
    The exhibition is part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, which celebrates the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art through ten diverse exhibitions and an extensive calendar of related public programs. A Year of Yes recognizes feminism as a driving force for progressive change and takes the transformative contributions of feminist art during the last half-century as its starting point. The Museum-wide series imagines next steps, expanding feminist thinking from its roots in the struggle for gender parity to embrace broader social-justice issues of tolerance, inclusion, and diversity. A Year of Yes began in October 2016 and continues through early 2018.

    Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern is part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, a yearlong series of ten exhibitions celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Leadership support is provided by Elizabeth A. Sackler, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, the Calvin Klein Family Foundation, Mary Jo and Ted Shen, and an anonymous donor. Generous support is also provided by Annette Blum, the Taylor Foundation, the Antonia and Vladimer Kulaev Cultural Heritage Fund, Beth Dozoretz, The Cowles Charitable Trust, and Almine Rech Gallery.

    Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern is organized by guest curator Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor Emerita in Art History, Stanford University, and coordinated by Lisa Small, Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, Brooklyn Museum. Lead sponsorship for this exhibition is provided by the Calvin Klein Family Foundation. Generous support is also provided by Anne Klein, the Helene Zucker Seeman Memorial Exhibition Fund, Almine Rech Gallery, and Alturas Foundation. The accompanying book is supported by the Wyeth Foundation for American Art and the Carl & Marilynn Thoma Art Foundation and is published by the Brooklyn Museum in association with DelMonico Books • Prestel.

    We are grateful to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, whose collaborative participation made this exhibition possible.

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