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There may be no other American artist who integrated her artwork and lifestyle more wholly than Georgia O’Keeffe. Her remarkably cohesive character becomes exquisitely clear in “Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style”, a multi-media exhibit meticulously researched, vivaciously described and impeccably installed by visiting curator Wanda M. Corn (Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor Emerita in Art History, Stanford University) and the talented team led by Austen Barron Bailly (George Putnam Curator of American Art) at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts. This stellar show, a blockbuster hit at the Brooklyn Museum last year, will be on view at PEM through April 1st, 2018.
A substantial portion of Art, Image, Style is comprised of images of Georgia O’Keeffe. By Dr. Corn’s estimation, she became the most photographed artist in the United States, sitting for thousands of portraits by some 40-50 photographers over her 98-year lifetime. Photographer, mentor and husband Alfred Stieglitz primed the pump, producing over 300 of his own photographs of her. Stieglitz and O’Keeffe’s early photographic collaboration laid the groundwork for creating what was to become the iconic view we hold of O’Keeffe today: a pensive, mystical, pioneer of modernism. O’Keeffe’s personal celebrity even surpassed her artistic fame, a consequence of these carefully orchestrated portraits. Her deliberate approach to every aspect of her life is engagingly addressed in the PEM exhibit, illuminating the stylization of her public image, but also affording glimpses into her more personal side.
Ages before it became a widespread, fervent aspiration to develop a distinctive individual brand, Georgia O’Keeffe effortlessly assumed her own unique persona. Unlike her contemporaries, such as Frida Kahlo and Louise Nevelson, whose signature styles were developed after becoming well-known, O’Keeffe had an innate, stubborn self-possession from earliest recorded childhood, one marked by a penchant for unadorned simplicity. Her enduring sense of style suggests a ready explanation for O’Keeffe’s immediate attraction (in the early 1910’s) to the radical modernist principles espoused by her teachers Alon Bement in Virginia, and later, (his mentor) Arthur Wesley Dow in New York. To them, traditional art merely imitated nature while “modern art used line, form, color, mass and asymmetrical composition to create beautiful arrangements” and was “like music, experienced abstractly and individually.” O’Keeffe eagerly awakened to this synergy between her natural inclinations and the ideals of modernism, a new aesthetic order that found similarly minimalist expression in the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau stylizations, and Asian traditions. The art world was undergoing a sea change and O’Keeffe took to it like a fish to water.
By the mid-1910’s, O’Keeffe’s newly energized and abstract artwork caught the attention of the New York arts impresario and photographer Alfred Stieglitz, a magnetic tastemaker and patron, who showed her work in his gallery and eventually lured her into leaving a teaching position in Texas and move to NY to work full-time as an artist. Their formerly correspondence-based relationship blossomed into a romance and within months O’Keeffe and Stieglitz, 23 years her senior and mired in an unhappy marriage, became lovers and artistic partners. The stage was set for a historic collaboration, one that fashioned O’Keeffe’s allure and captivated the public’s imagination.
With O’Keeffe as his muse, Stieglitz used portraiture to promote his conception of “the modern female American artist”, replacing fussy Victorian traditions with the idea of women as organic beings who issued their creations “from the womb” (euphemistic for “intuitively”). By inclination and training, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were both formalists, producing highly stylized, symbolic imagery. Often Stieglitz would position O’Keeffe in front of her artwork in ways that created an unbroken fluidity between her body and her artwork. Other times, he would shoot her simply clad or nude body at angle (he favored aiming upward), isolating her figure against a blank background (often sky) to create abstract, monolithic forms that evoked a timeless and divine inner strength. He also favored photographing her as one with nature, holding fruited branches and even hugging trees.
From roughly 1918 to 1938, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe developed a formula that established her essential iconography. Steiglitz led the “Secessionist” American photographic movement away from “Pictorialism”, with its romanticized and flowery representations held over from Victorian times, to “Modernism”, a dynamic, minimalist style that reflected societal changes like the suffragette movement. Because Stieglitz was a B&W photographer (no color film yet), O’Keeffe learned to dress in contrasting black and white clothing with trim, unisex silhouettes that simultaneously depicted her as an avant-garde “activist” and accentuated her femininity with dramatic V-neck designs revealing the sensuous contours of her bare skin. Capes and snug-fitting caps or hoods, along with serious, remote expressions and averted eyes, completed the impression of a mystic in ecclesiastic dress answering an artistic call of spiritual dimensions.
After Stieglitz died in 1946, O’Keeffe moved to the desert of New Mexico, prompting a natural shift in both her artwork and her lifestyle. Photographic relationships between the artist and her art were extended to include the distinctive landscape. Her renown drew prominent photographers like Cecil Beaton, Philippe Halsman, Ansel Adams, Mary Nichols, Yousuf Karsh, Todd Webb and Bruce Weber, among many others, who contextualized her in the American southwest by including geological features of the desert, her ranch and adobe buildings in their compositions. Her attire, too, evolved to include regional markers like white scarves, desert hats, Mexican belts and Native American jewelry. However, O’Keeffe still favored the fundamental look she and Stieglitz established: dramatic body positioning with averted eyes, basic black garments with simple silhouettes and a preference for B&W photography. As she aged, she further cultivated a spiritual impression through both facial expression and her “uniform” of wrap dresses, eventually being dubbed “St. Georgia of the West”.
O’Keeffe directed and endorsed her compelling iconography. However, an icon is only a construction, a façade standing in for a real person without digging into either character or emotion. Photographs of O’Keeffe over the years seemed to involve a lot of rules: no smiles, no photos of her working, exceedingly rare studio shots, and interestingly, only women photographed her dressed in white. As convincing as it is that O’Keeffe genuinely integrated every aspect of her life, her intriguingly remote imagery lacks a human dimension. Luckily, this is also addressed in the exhibit. With photographers who were her good friends like Ansel Adams, Tony Vaccaro and Todd Webb, O’Keeffe abandoned pretense. The exhibit includes a sprinkling of delightfully revealing shots, like Vaccaro’s photo of O’Keeffe spying at him through a hole in her slice of Swiss cheese or Ansel Adams’ photo of a beguiling O’Keeffe sharing a moment with Orville Cox, the head wrangler on her ranch. I also believe she appears to be a lot looser in her advanced years, when she more often engaged directly with the camera and also just as she started out with Stieglitz. He captured my favorite portrait of a serene, disheveled and partially robed O’Keeffe in what I imagine was a completely open lover’s gaze.
An absolute trove of O’Keeffe photographic portraits infuses this lively and enriching exhibit. Arranged chronologically and geographically, it culminates with a wall of photographs, both iconic and playful, that had me floating out of the exhibit. There are other fascinating features, like a video interview that helps bring O’Keeffe to life and even a couture runway clip that testifies to the way her style still inspires designers today. This show’s extraordinary garments, inimitable artwork and iconic imagery form a stunning synergy that I imagine would enchant O’Keeffe herself.
For more information about this exhibit and related special programming, go to: http://staging2.pem.org/exhibitions/201-georgia_okeeffe_art_image_style
I highly recommend the book “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern”, wonderfully organized and written by curator Wanda M. Corn and produced in conjunction with the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibit last year. Copies are available in the PEM bookstore, some autographed by the erudite and entertaining Dr. Corn.
Feature Image: Installation view of “Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style” at Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA (photo by Elin Spring).