Some artists create works of art; others practice self-creation as an art form. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) did both. Best known for her paintings of flowers, animal skulls and bones, and the stark, high-desert landscapes of New Mexico, she was also one of the first celebrity artists who understood how to exercise the power of her own image. An invigorating exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” chronicles the evolution of this self-styled artist throughout her long career across photographed and painted portraits of her and her clothes, shoes, accessories, and hats, all of which reflected the minimal yet lush aesthetic of her own paintings and sculptures. The show isn’t a traditional retrospective; rather, it’s a captivating portrait of her image — her iconic status — as she imagined, controlled, and projected it.
O’Keeffe grew up on a farm outside Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, the second of seven children and the eldest daughter. Her younger siblings thought her bossy; her schoolmates, it seems, regarded her as strong and self-possessed. Printed next to her photograph in her high school yearbook from 1905, the year she graduated, is a portrait-in-rhyme: “A girl who would be different in habit, style, and dress/A girl who doesn’t give a cent for men — and boys still less.” From the time she was twelve, she’d wanted to be a painter. She studied at the Art Institute of Chicago when she was eighteen, and at twenty spent a year in New York at the Art Students League.
While there, she was asked by fellow student Eugene Speicher, a realist painter, if she would sit for him. She declined, explaining that she wished to spend her time on her own work. According to her, he replied: “It doesn’t matter what you do. I’m going to be a great painter. You’ll probably end up teaching painting in some girls’ school.” An outsize ego has a way of sowing its own fate: O’Keeffe did sit for him — Speicher’s portrait of 1908 is one of the exhibition’s earliest — but something about the unperturbed look on her face gives the distinct impression that even then she knew who of the two would achieve success.
O’Keeffe did in fact teach for a time, in Texas and South Carolina, but moved to New York in 1918 to paint full-time at the invitation of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, with whom she’d begun an affair and to whom she would be married from 1924 until his death in 1946. Stieglitz, twenty-three years her senior, photographed her on their first meeting at his 291 gallery, and would do so over three hundred times throughout their lives together. These portraits are collaborations of a kind. O’Keeffe wasn’t a passive subject, a mere muse. She knew the power of a camera, how to sit for it, how to harness her force, her presence, for the lens. She posed for him as he wished and directed, but she also posed for him as she wished to be seen and known.
In one photograph from 1918, she stands with her hands on her hips, staring straight into the camera, the very picture of unwavering confidence. In another, from 1921, she holds a small Matisse sculpture, the shape of which echoes that of the fertility goddess the Venus of Willendorf. O’Keeffe holds it gingerly and looks away from it, wholly present if appearing largely uninterested in Stieglitz’s vision for this one. In picture after picture, she’s never explicitly emotive — her features look as though they’ve been carved into stone — but she does permit the microclimates of her mind and moods to be detected and captured.
As with that of all great self-created beings, O’Keeffe’s self-expression extended to her fashion sense, too. In her early years, she made her own clothes. “I sewed all day and made a most wonderful green smock — I am very proud of it,” she wrote in a letter to a friend in 1916, also remarking that she found her creation “more Art than a lot of things.” Ivory silk dresses, tunics, and jackets, all cool and loose; light linen and silk blouses, given shape and character with delicate pin tucks. Comfort was imperative, but so was style. Later in life, when she had little time for sewing, she favored the colorful designs of Marimekko and the easy, failsafe femininity of Claire McCardell, the pioneer of American sportswear, whom O’Keeffe considered one of the best designers of her day. Her notorious pantsuits, and the Japanese kimonos she loved to wear, are also on view, and part of the fun of standing before the artist’s sensible-chic wardrobe is noting the modest stature of this woman who was otherwise larger than life.
“I thought someone could tell me how to paint a landscape, but I never found that person….They could tell you how they painted their landscape, but they couldn’t tell me to paint mine.” In 1929, O’Keeffe made her first trip to northern New Mexico for the summer, and she fell in love with the desert, where she began to make the paintings that would in turn make her name in the art world. She settled permanently in Abiquiu in 1949, a few years after Stieglitz’s death. One of the great testaments to O’Keeffe’s mastery of her own image may be how she achieved her greatest celebrity living not in the limelight, but in a remote, solitary place. Throughout her life, she welcomed photographers and documentarians to shoot her in situ in New Mexico, her adobe home decorated in sun-bleached animal bones and succulents (and the occasional Calder mobile), alongside the otherworldly terrain that surrounded it and provided backdrops that only added more mystique to her personal mythos. Fashion photographers such as Cecil Beaton and Bruce Weber traveled to shoot her, as did Annie Leibovitz. Even King of Pop Andy Warhol paid homage to the artist’s image in a glittering orange silkscreen portrait of her that he covered in gold dust. In the end, O’Keeffe staged a sparkling life and a brilliant career simply by doing what any real artist should: being, and living, exactly as she wished.