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Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern

Brooklyn Museum - New York

By Taliesin Thomas

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 - 1986) is widely recognized as the stoic ‘Mother of American modernism,’ the unabashed creator of sensual female genitalia-inspired paintings, the lover to her mentor and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz, and in her later years, a recluse cloistered in the Southwest. Despite all her existing fame, a recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in New York presented her in a most unexpected and distinguished light-O’Keeffe as dauntless celebrity and unrivaled style icon. Not your typical O’Keeffe retrospective filled with glorious vaginal-flower compositions and stark deer skulls set against a blue sky, “Georgia O’Keefe: Living Modern” offered a revived glimpse into the life of this progressive and independent woman who single-handedly defined an epoch in American art.

O’Keeffe’s journey to art world stardom took a dynamic path-raised in Wisconsin, she later studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and The Art Students League of New York. She worked as a teacher and a commercial illustrator before Stieglitz presented an exhibition of her art in 1916. She became his muse-later his wife-and he shot hundreds of sensuous photos of O’Keeffe over the course of their love affair. Despite her rising fame in New York and beyond, she was consistently drawn to the desert of New Mexico where she eventually settled to live out her days as an artist-ascetic.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern” (March 3 – July 23, 2017), installation view at the Brooklyn Museum, New York.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern” (March 3 – July 23, 2017), installation view at the Brooklyn Museum, New York.

The “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern” exhibition included many personal pieces from her elegant and emblematic wardrobe-silk scarves, felt hats, simple black dresses, exquisite kimonos, faded shoes-shown for the first time alongside some of her rare paintings and select photographs. Carefully curated to highlight O’Keeffe’s self-crafted public persona and gender-bending character, the outfits gracefully hummed with the calm energy and signature mode of their former inhabitant. Among the treasures in the show was her beloved brass “OK” pin created by Alexander Calder and a gorgeous diamond-dust 1980 portrait of O’Keeffe by Andy Warhol. Just next to that glittering work an Interview Magazine photo shoot from September 1983 showed a series of intimate images by Christopher Makos of O’Keeffe with her younger assistant (and beau) Juan Hamilton. A room toward the back of the exhibition displayed a short documentary that included footage of O’Keeffe discussing her life at Ghost Ranch-the symbolic temple of her soul-and a video reel of her influence in the world of international fashion.

Also included in the exhibition were numerous black and white photos of O’Keeffe taken by a younger generation of artists smitten with the doyenne of their era. Over the years the likes of Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, Andy Warhol, Bruce Weber, Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Todd Webb visited her in New Mexico to capture their vision of this pioneering idol. Often an androgynous figure in front of the camera, O’Keeffe’s singular profile and handsome beauty still shines forth and defies categorization. These rare photos reveal notable contours of O’Keeffe’s character and leave us with a poetic impression of this devastating loner, someone we will never get over.

A fitting tribute to O’Keeffe’s first-ever museum exhibition held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1927, “Georgia O’Keefe: Living Modern” was not only a nod to the art of the feminist movement still advanced by the exhibitions and programming at the Brooklyn Museum, this show was also a respectful portrait of an individualistic woman and a remarkable creator. Taken together, the refined elements in the exhibit presented O’Keeffe as she remains: a dignified and mysterious figure who captured our popular imagination; a meditating mystic; a fashion symbol; and a revered legend among legendary artists.

(March 3 - July 23, 2017)

Taliesin Thomas is an artist-philosopher, writer and educator based in Brooklyn, N.Y., and is the founding director of AW Asia (2007 – present). She has lectured widely on contemporary Chinese art and has published in Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese ArtJournal of Contemporary Chinese Art (JCCA) and ArtAsiaPacific magazine in addition to regular reviews for ARTPULSE. She holds an M.A. from Columbia University and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in art theory and philosophy at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts.

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