The name Georgia O’Keeffe is synonymous with the expressive modernism of the 20th century and a new and unprecedented exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum offers more than just a collection of her paintings. “Living Modern” looks at O’Keeffe as a female icon through the lenses of her wardrobe, camera and her paints.
Born in rural Wisconsin in the Victorian era, O’Keeffe began distancing herself from the constricting contemporary styles and expectations of women at a young age. By sewing her own clothing, she was able to express herself as an individual in subtle yet powerful ways. Adopting men’s styles like white collared shirts and suit coats early on, she was strong and confident in her use of clean lines and contrasting hues, best seen in a famous photo captured by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, on display at the exhibit now. The camera looks up at O’Keeffe’s profile as she holds herself in a classic contrapposto pose.
Both her early life and her early paintings were defined by this confident style — her simple yet abstract art in oil and watercolor embraced her home in New York City. However, her celebrity came after her dramatic soul-searching move from her home of nearly 30 years to the American West, the land of big skies and piercing color that she found on her New Mexico ranch.
New Mexico opened a new chapter in O’Keeffe’s personal and artistic life. O’Keeffe selected her ranch home not for a good view, a nice neighborhood or even an appealing style. Instead, she chose the house for its front door — a gaping, deep and black square cut into the otherwise uninterrupted adobe stucco wall.
Here, in the untamed desert, O’Keeffe’s career exploded where her paints brought life to the barren desert landscape. She was directly inspired by her surroundings, as exemplified in a friend’s photograph of her working “en plein air,” her canvas facing the desert. This new home also influenced her fashion and the way she presented herself to the world after becoming famous. As the exhibit’s displays demonstrate, her wardrobe remained free-flowing, but became noticeably more colorful. Using nature as inspiration, O’Keeffe stitched the palette of her new home into her clothes, deep reds and lofty blues complementing the landscape she loved so much.
While O’Keeffe’s work is seen as definitive of American 20th century art, her versatility is as timeless as the woman herself. Drawing influence from Chinese calligraphy to 19th century feminist rhetoric, O’Keeffe lived her life simply, expressively and genuinely, with her resulting works mirroring her character. Her persona and accomplishments have inspired many generations of creatives and opened the doors for women to make their marks on the art world. A true icon, Georgia O’Keeffe was able to define a century and a country through her paints and her threads.
“Living Modern” is open through July 23. Admission to the Brooklyn Museum is free, though admission to this special exhibition is $12 with a valid student ID.
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