Georgia O’Keeffe: Artist ahead of her time in preening brand

By Catherine Triomphe — Everyone knows her magnified flowers and desert bones of New Mexico. But Georgia O’Keeffe also was a pioneer in preening her austere, androgynous image, which helped her become an icon of US art. That extraordinary branding is the focus of a new exhibition, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” that opened at the Brooklyn Museum, one of New York’s major museums along with the better-known Metropolitan Museum of Art and Museum of Modern Art. Long before the era of ubiquitous selfies and curated Instagram accounts, O’Keeffe was adept at self-branding, using wardrobe style and photographic portraits to reinforce her artistic message.
The exhibition illuminates those correspondences with dozens of garments — and some shoes, which she preferred flat — and more than a hundred photographs, including those taken by her famous husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, as well as Ansel Adams and fashion master Bruce Weber.
The items are juxtaposed with about 30 of her paintings, including the blow-up flowers, arid deserts and stylised views of New York skyscrapers dating from her years with Stieglitz in Manhattan.
Born in 1887 on a farm in the Midwest, O’Keeffe stood out during her school years in Virginia as someone who rejected Victorian manners and dresses that restricted the female body.
In the high school yearbook from her senior year, in 1905, her classmates wrote: “A girl who would be different in habit, style and dress. A girl who does not give a 2 cent for men and boys still less.”
951524Stieglitz, who was her lover before they married in 1924, was the first to market O’Keefe, pushing her from the early 1920s to play off her angular image and holding a near-monopoly on the young artist’s photographic portraits, which also fed into his own success.
“He would not have used the word ‘marketing’ but he had a sense that the more we saw or heard from a person, it could help a career as an artist. She learned a lot from him,” said Wanda Corn, art professor at Stanford University and guest curator of the “Living Modern” exhibition.
One of the photographs from this period, by Stieglitz, already declares the colour, or rather the lack of colour, that O’Keeffe preferred in making black and/or white her wardrobe trademark.
The artist draped herself majestically in a large black cape, covered her head with a large, mannish black bowler, and gazed into the distance with an ever-so-slight smile.
Shot from a low angle, against a neutral background, the entire image gives the impression of a woman — or a man, because there is no makeup, no jewellery, no other trace of femininity — ready to face the future with straightforward confidence.
O’Keeffe liked to sew, and the exhibition showcases several of her handcrafted garments found after her death in 1986 in the closets of the two homes she owned in New Mexico.
There are long dresses and blouses, mostly black or off-white. They are ample and severe and made with natural materials like silk and cotton.
After the death of Stieglitz in 1946, O’Keeffe left New York to live in New Mexico. Under its vast blue skies and in the desert, where stores were kilometres away on rough roads, the artist strayed from her black-and-white world and indulged in blue denim, notably for her large aprons.
It was there, in the middle of these empty southwestern landscapes, that O’Keefe truly became a 20th century icon, as attested by two Andy Warhol portraits in 1980.
During the 1970s, Warhol was part of a new generation of artists, feminists, hippies and fashion designers like Calvin Klein who were fascinated by this old woman who painted with the greatest simplicity. — AFP