“The fact that paintings and, to some extent, photographs were so important for me had something to do with this. They contained no words, no concepts, and when I looked at them what I experienced, what made them so important, was also non-conceptual. There was something stupid in this, an area that was completely devoid of intelligence, which I had difficulty acknowledging or accepting, yet which perhaps was the most important single element of what I wanted to do.” – Karl Ove Knausgaard
Georgia O’Keefe is the artist who taught me to see art. This isn’t something I realized leaned over an art history essay, rolling a plethora of Ph.D. tainted insight and snotty criticism through my head. I realized it sitting in my parent’s bedroom, at age ten, looking at From the Lake, 1924. At first I found it beautiful, in the stupid way that requires no thought, like how you find a flower beautiful. And then one day I really looked at it, I found it confusing, almost unnerving, it felt organic and derivative to something natural. In the end I decided it was a sensation, a journey through an emotion expressed through something else. And it had the power to provoke a similar sensation in me. This is O’Keeffe, the artist my ten year old self could understand fairly accurately with no background in art history whatsoever. The artist who has shaped my regard and appreciation for all other art since.
It goes with all art: music, painting, photography, and writing alike, that significance of the work evolves through a more intimate understanding of the artist themself. When we think Georgia O’Keeffe, we often cling to the immediate associations: pastel, flowery genitalia, and cow skulls floating in mid-air amongst a southwestern backdrop. These paintings are sprinkled throughout art museums everywhere, and what I’ve found over the years of recognizing and gravitating toward them is their reliability, an ever-present focus and gentle acknowledgment to beauty and nature I’ve now associated O’Keeffe to being capable of capturing.
When I approach introducing someone to O’Keeffe for the first time I begin at the end. I talk about the small town she lived in north of Santa Fe, of Ghost Ranch where she lived after her husband died and created many of her later projects. It is here where we remember O’Keeffe as an old woman whose identity was connected to bleached bones and southwestern landscapes, who was photographed by young famous photographers in her home and land, who never wore makeup and cultivated a style of simple androgynous clothing that was mostly black, white, and denim, who’s art was liberated from the sexual connotations that Alfred Stieglitz’s photography and Freudian influences had placed on her painting, and whose media identity grew to be as loud and significant as her art itself.
O’Keeffe was introduced to the world in 1917, through a series of nude photos done by her lover, and eventually husband, Alfred Stieglitz. He was one of New York’s most famous photographers, an influential figure of the Avant-Garde movement, and everything seen through his point of view was vibrant and urgent to culture and photography. And thus before her art was widely known O’Keeffe was associated to the identity of not only being Stieglitz’s mistress, but also a free spirit, a woman unafraid to pose naked and give the public free reign to the photos. These photos created a public persona for O’Keefe that was beautiful, mysterious, alluring, and bravely unique. And as O’Keeffe’s paintings gained popularity they grew through this identity, her flowers, sea-shells, and gentle forms were the femininity, budding sexuality, desire, and unrelenting womanhood presented in Stieglitz’s photos.
As she’s about to return to Texas, Stieglitz writes to her on June, 1, 1917: “How I wanted to photograph you — the hands — the mouth — & eyes — & the enveloped in black body — the touch of white — & the throat — but I didn’t want to break into your time — ” –NPR
Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum is not just a study of her art, clothes, friendships, and relationships, as it is a meditation on her lifestyle as a whole. The exhibit is a deep survey of her art, clothing, and portraits, and everything in-between that touches on her social image: such as interviews, art critiques, and texts she read throughout life.
This is the first exhibit ever to display O’Keeffe’s clothing alongside her art, creating an interesting dynamic. The paintings and sculptures I’m familiar with sat next to the personal belongings of the artist who made them. I didn’t expect to think much of the clothing walking in, I have difficulty connecting to physical things. I knew I would regard her art more intimately than her personal objects. But, I was surprised by the impression they left. In the mostly black and white “modernist” items I was further provoked to ponder what inspired them, how these clothes were connected to the unusual paintings and photos of the artist I awed. It wasn’t so much envy, as an explosive curiosity toward a woman who lived in a moment in history distant from my own, who created a media identity through her style and photographic personality that has never been possible to recreate or compare to another. There was a photo by Philippe Halsman, showing O’Keeffe standing, wearing a black felt gaucho hat, usually worn by Central and South American cowboys, and an undecorated black suit. She’s standing with little expression in her face, looking off toward the distance, above her head hangs a massive cow skull, which within the image appears balanced in size to the upper portion of O’Keeffe’s torso. The photo mimics the style and imagery of O’Keeffe’s paintings, and is one of the many portraits that ties the identity of her to these southwestern objects, and her own art.
The exhibit features work from throughout O’Keeffe’s life: a study of New York skyscrapers from early in her career, shells, flowers that sometimes do and don’t feel sexual, a floating cow skull, a painting of a pelvis, next to a circular painting of a blue hole that studies how the sky seen through the holes in pelvis bones, spiral sculptures, and shapes and forms. Two Tree Trunks, made in 1945, right after her husband’s death, shows two bare tree trunks growing apart from each other, one is frayed on the ends, and may be a nod toward Stieglitz’s infidelity at the end of their marriage.
What I took from walking through the clothes, the shoes, the jewelry, the hats, and the objects wasn’t so much an impression of how they influenced a world rolling into modernism, as much as the life of the woman who lived within them. The streets of New York, back roads in New Mexico, standing in homes, sitting outdoors, making paintings, posing for photos. We are looking at Georgia O’Keeffe as a life lived in such a way that everything she did: photos, clothes, art, friends, is enthralling, unconventional, and spectacularly rare.
Finding O’Keeffe was finding an artist who I could understand and appreciate in ways that transcend social merit. She is the painter with the vagina flowers, the cow skulls that float in mid-air amidst a southwestern backdrop, the organic colors that always look and feel enchanting. She’s also the first painter I truly felt. Modern Painting has always been what’s done it for me. I can look at a Jackson Pollock and feel everything that went into his splattered masterpieces, I can feel the twitch of his wrist, his sore shoulders, the weight of the hours, everything being felt in the given moment being wretched on canvas. O’Keefe is more meticulous. I saw it in a painting that hung in my parents bedroom while I was growing up. I stared at it for years wondering if I really liked it, deciding why it looked nice, why it sometimes felt confusing, and other times comforting. The organic movements and plains felt like a study, a reflection on something natural and once consumed.
“It is impossible for me to put into words what I saw and felt in your drawings. As a matter of fact I would not make an attempt to do so. I might give you what I received from them if you and I were to meet and talk about life. Possibly then through such a conversation I might make you feel what your drawings gave me. I do want to tell you that they gave me much joy. They were a real surprise and above all I felt that they were a genuine expression of yourself” -Alfred Stieglitz
I’m biased. I walked into this exhibit possessing an appreciation for Georgia O’Keefe spanning years, beginning with me growing up with an abstract painting, and moves through museums in San Antonio, Chicago, New York, and Santa Fe, of paintings showing cows skulls, flowers that feel like sex, landscapes that look like memories, and shapes that feel academic. This visit for me was necessary, like a Star Wars fan seeing Rogue One. I fear some people approach art with this feeling that you must be pretentious about it. That you cannot have strong feelings toward an artist unless you are able to defend them in a squabble full of quotes from critics and a large pool of knowledge on art history. And what I love about O’Keefe is that the reasons I love her are much more innate. She is an artist that was handed down to me by parents who have loved her all their life. What this exhibit has done, and what I’d frailly expected to experience was an encompassing journey of who O’Keefe was as she let people see.
Georgia O’Keefe: Living Modern is in the Brooklyn Museum through July 23rd.