07 May Georgia on my Mind
Find an empty space and fill it with something beautiful” was the single guiding edict that Georgia O’Keeffe followed through a prolific career of painting and living. This simple, distilled statement made by her teacher Arthur Wesley Dow gave her the single inspiration and purpose she was seeking as an artist.
This begins the comprehensive and finely crafted exhibition, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern at The Brooklyn Museum. Curated with acute detail and an eye toward exposing the artist’s very essence, the show is a revelation for bringing together painting, photography, clothing, correspondence and personal effects; elements which work in tandem to completely encapsulate this iconic figure in 20th century art. I walked away with a tremendous understanding that was far beyond a series of canvases.
The show is divided into three sections: the New York years, the New Mexico years and Celebrity.
The New York Years
Arriving in New York in 1916 to view an exhibition of her works at 291, she met Alfred Stieglitz who owned the gallery and set up the show. Immediately taken with her, Alfred set about wooing her to come to New York permanently. She continued to teach and further her studies at Teachers College, Columbia University but finally moved in 1918 upon his request and began her painting in earnest along with a romantic relationship, ultimately leading to marriage in 1924.
Stieglitz knew there was something unique about this enigmatic woman who painted abstractly in deep, rich color and set about documenting her prolifically in photographs, taking thousands of pictures of her over the course of their 22 year union. Alfred worked to hone and preserve the image she was creating for herself—austere black and white clothing, simple living, a passion for beauty in the world and a self-determination that was unshakeable. Never before had the life, work and image of an artist so cohesively melded to form an almost canonical figure.
Stieglitz was also a tireless promoter of her paintings and was the origin of the Freudian notions put forth in her early works, which, even at the time, she vehemently opposed, telling everyone, including press, that her work was not subconscious, was not sexual in tone and was not what one might consider “womanly.” Still, she had a hard time escaping these pre-conceptions.
With the deterioration of her marriage and eventual death of her husband in 1946, O’Keeffe decided to move on as New York held nothing further for her. Having previously spent a few summers in the countryside around New Mexico, trekking the area and painting as much as possible, she decided to embark on a new life in the Southwest. She completed one final painting, an ode to Brooklyn Bridge, before departing.
The New Mexico Years
New Mexico was a dream for her and she found a property that she could not live without, the adobe in Abiquiu. This adobe had what she called a black door and was the sole reason for the purchase—she said she could not live without that door and painted many iterations of it.
It was here that the sun baked reds, pinks, purples and blues inspired her anew, stating in correspondence to a friend “out here half your work is done for you.”
O’Keeffe thrived in her new environment and eagerly immersed herself in the western way of living, adopting denim in her wardrobe and wearing brighter colors which reflected her surroundings. She collected bones, skulls, rocks and other ephemera from the land and used them as models as well as décor. In addition she acquired an impressive array of high mid-century modern furnishings.
She eventually acquired property around her home which she turned into a garden for flowers and vegetables, saving her the 70 mile trips by car to Santa Fe for provisions.
Through the years of living in New Mexico photographers and magazines became enthralled with this fiercely independent artist living out in seemingly no-man’s land and she was continuously photographed and featured in editorials for titles such as Architectural Digest, House Beautiful, Harper’s Bazaar and Life—many of which would come back over time to feature her again. With each subsequent article she further expressed her image and lifestyle which had germinated in the 1920’s.
The final section focuses on O’Keeffe as a celebrity and iconic figure in the world of art and lifestyle. Andy Warhol memorialized her in a silkscreen in which he mixed diamond dust into the wet paint to give her a starry, glittery effect.
Bruce Webber photographed her twice for features and Calvin Klein used her property in a large advertorial for a 1980’s spring men’s collection, even sending her a sweater he designed for review.
What is most illuminating is a three minute video of an interview she gave about the house and property, a rare occasion she allowed herself to be on film. The film captures the directness of her personality and an authenticity that made her a true American figure.
In the last years of her life she suffered from macular degeneration and was no longer able to paint as she had. With the aid of an assistant she produced a series of works in watercolor—simple swaths of color which are beautiful in their simplicity and Asian in style.
Throughout her life, Georgia O’Keeffe never wavered from her primary beliefs and this exhibition not only celebrates this life but the woman as well, leading with the art and the lifestyle following. She simply knew her own mind and wielded the power of this knowledge.
Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern runs through July 23.
Feature Image: O’Keeffe Making a Stew, Ghost Ranch. Todd Webb, 1962.