The Intimate Dangers of Reading Georgia O’Keeffe Through a Blouse

The exhibit includes three white blouses made by Georgia O’Keeffe during the 1930s. Photo: Melissa Wyse.
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Any description of the new traveling Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit Living Modern must start with a blouse. On a hanger in the middle of the exhibit, the blouse is made of white linen, and stitched with several dozen fine pin tucks, each as delicate and precise as the stem of a feather, a fine spine of structure wending its way through the soft, worn cloth. Both times I went to see the exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, I got lost in these pin tucks. I’ve thought about them since.

This blouse, handmade by O’Keeffe herself, is displayed in Living Modern along with other clothing she saved throughout her lifetime, select pieces of her artwork, and dozens of the artist’s portrait. The clothing lends an immediacy to the show that invites us a fresh perspective. The exhibit, however, does not fully realize the depth of its own interpretive potential. Too often it casts O’Keeffe as an icon instead of an artist (a framing disproportionately applied to female artists). When it succeeds, the show gives us an affective closeness to O’Keeffe’s artistic interests. But when it fails, it shrouds her in an all-too-familiar mythology.

The “Living Modern” exhibit shows the wrap dresses O’Keeffe wore in the later decades of her life, alongside portraits made of her during this same time period. Photo: Jonathan Dorado. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum.

The premise of the exhibit and the accompanying book by curator and art historian Wanda M. Corn is that O’Keeffe’s modernity bridges her life and her art, so that her clothes, too, can serve as a site for art-historical inquiry. In many ways, her premise feels intuitively right: that an artist’s material culture can illuminate something of their creative interests. Being among these intimate daily objects, it’s easier to see O’Keeffe as she saw herself – and better recognize her visual vocabulary, the recurring motifs and shapes that interested her and informed her work.

This sense of intimacy matters when considering an artist as deeply familiar as O’Keeffe. Over the course of the past century, a cultural iconography has built up around the artist that shapes and limits our understanding. Today, people experience her paintings most commonly through a booming industry of greeting cards, coffee table books, and decorative prints, which usually feature reproductions of her early botanical pictures. Even still, there is a pervasive cultural assumption that these paintings should be interpreted through an erotic Freudian lens, a limited critical framework that has haunted O’Keeffe since the earliest days of her career. A mythology has formed not only around her paintings, but around her life. When she moved full-time to the New Mexican desert, she became an object of fascination and a kind of cult-hero for feminists, fashion designers, and photographers. All this interpreting and idolizing and mythologizing has had the effect of turning O’Keeffe into a fixture of pop culture.

A cultural tendency to fetishize O’Keeffe’s lifestyle in the desert of New Mexico can detract attention from the radical, modernist work she created during this period in pieces such as “Patio with Cloud,” 1956. Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: P. Richard Eells.

Perhaps because O’Keeffe has so thoroughly saturated popular culture, any exhibit of her work is, seemingly, requiring of an accompanying complaint that she is already overexposed. The gendered nature of these accusations, aside (it’s less common to hear similar rumblings about, for instance, Matisse), the show’s curator is right in asserting the necessity of exhibiting artists who are already established  in the art historical canon. Unless we revisit such figures through radical new lenses, their work blurs into the cultural iconography that surrounds it. The sense of immediacy in Living Modern helps us cut through the decades of mass-marketed memorabilia and interpretations that can prevent us from meaningfully engaging with O’Keeffe’s paintings. The exhibition invites us into a space so engagingly personal, that we startle ourselves into a genuine, physically-felt sense of the artist’s aesthetic.

However, Living Modern is also a precarious enterprise. As Corn writes, “O’Keeffe … [said] repeatedly that she wanted the public to focus on her art and not on her as a person.” Western culture has a long history of fetishizing women in positions of power and influence by over-attending to their appearance. Foregrounding O’Keeffe’s clothing and portraits risks deflecting attention from the rigor and importance of her creative contributions. 

Corn’s exhibit is at its strongest when it points to the aesthetic resonances between O’Keeffe’s art and clothing. Here, the scalloped shape at the hem of her Marimekko dress explores the same shape and pattern as the custom frame she commissioned for her painting “Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock–Hills (Ram’s Head and White Hollyhock, New Mexico).” Photo: Melissa Wyse.

To her credit, the curator attempts to address these concerns. She suggests that O’Keeffe’s “wardrobe played a meaningful role in her aesthetic universe” – a phrase that allows us to see how the objects the artist used in her daily life relate to her larger web of aesthetic interests. However, the argument quickly shifts focus; Corn explains that O’Keeffe “understood how clothes helped create and reinforce her image as an independent woman artist.” Rather than explore the relationship between material culture and artistic production, Corn turns to O’Keeffe’s image, as though the image – and not the artwork – is of greater interest.

Ansel Adams, “Georgia OíKeeffe at Yosemite,” 1938. © 2016 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust.

The language here is subtle but telling, and it recurs throughout the book and exhibition. Corn writes, “Over the course of [O’Keeffe’s] lifetime, she created an uncompromising modern aesthetic and applied it equally not only to her painting but also to her dress and her homes.” This qualifying adverb “equally” implies that O’Keeffe’s aesthetic involvement in her clothing might be equal to her innovative art.

Susceptible to such slippages, Living Modern often succumbs to a cult of personality: Corn’s first plaque describes O’Keeffe as “one of the most iconic figures in modern American art.” Likewise, in the book’s foreword, Anne Pasternak, a director at the Brooklyn Museum, writes:

Living Modern … presents a new and differently focused examination of the modern persona that O’Keeffe crafted for herself through her art [and] her dress …

This language casts O’Keeffe’s art as a mere aid in constructing a persona, and positions the artist as the subject of observation; she is being looked at as an object, rather than being looked with.

The primacy the show accords to O’Keeffe’s persona is especially disconcerting in the section that address her celebrity. In a small, dark room at the end of the exhibit, a screen loops through magazine images of the artist and her homes in New Mexico. Some of these are reverent: loving, airy portraits of her interior, or her desert garden. Some include O’Keeffe herself.

Later in the slideshow a series of contemporary fashion models and Hollywood actresses pose in O’Keeffe’s landscape in clothing that seems to defy the very androgyny and creative freedom that Corn argues O’Keeffe’s own clothes sought to express. These later fashion photographs feel like disturbing invasions. The worst offender was a photo-spread of Calvin Klein’s 1984 visit to O’Keeffe’s New Mexican homes. The exhibit plaque explains:

Calvin Klein admired O’Keeffe; he owned paintings by her and sent her a sweater he had designed. He met her… [and] returned with photographer Bruce Weber for what became a three-day shoot for an advertising campaign.

In one photo, Klein reclines near an adobe wall in O’Keeffe’s house. It performs an architectural moment we see photographed elsewhere, but O’Keeffe herself is absent, this time. Klein lounges alone, stretching into the adobe room: luxuriating in the full promise of the space, relishing in the indulgence of admiration and influence. One gets the sense that this image, in particular, was not merely an advertising strategy, but a personal manifesto: a designer positioning himself in relation to a creative canon, defining his aesthetic against the backdrop of the artist’s.

These images disturbed me. Afterwards, I sat for a long time on a bench in the adjacent gallery, recovering: they perpetrated a violence. And Corn says little about it: the closest she comes to commenting on Klein’s photoshoot is to refer to his suggestively posing on O’Keeffe’s bed as “impudent,” a critique that feels more like mild chiding than a serious consideration of his appropriation, or its wider implications.

This curatorial silence may stem from the fact that the Calvin Klein Family Foundation is Living Modern’s lead sponsor. Here we catch a glimpse of the insidious financial machinations that lurk behind the scenes. While it’s not uncommon to sense the ways that financial structures (the tastes of wealthy collectors, fluctuations in the art market, etc.) impact the economies of art, it’s rarer to observe such a naked example of private financial support affecting the scope of art history’s presentation, and directly shaping the ways we understand artists and their work.

In her recent New Yorker article Alexandra Lange explores the cultural resonances of Marimekko’s “Varjo” dress, which was worn by prominent women including Georgia O’Keeffe and Jane Jacobs. Lange points to the way Marimekko’s dresses “freed the body,” a trait appealing for women like O’Keeffe “who had so much to do.” O’Keeffe likely would have been drawn to this dress both for its comfort and its resonance with her own aesthetic vocabulary. Detail from Marimekko “Varjo” Dress, circa 1963. Photo: Melissa Wyse.

Against Corn’s mission, this is especially troubling because of the gendered implications of Klein’s posturing, and the way it further flattens O’Keeffe into a mere image. The cult of personality and influence, which allows biography and its surrounding myths to become more important than artworks, always tempts art history. In the case of artists who are women, though, emphasizing the details of her life is a particularly pernicious method of obscuring their creative work. It’s a way to pay a cutting, double-edged homage that diminishes, even as it pretends to aggrandize. Mythologizing life stories, style, and personal habitat helps ease the discomfort of confronting the revolutionary and deliberately discomfiting nature of the work. It’s a way of re-appropriating the artist, of subsuming some of their power, of taking their radical contributions to the history of art and rounding them off and delivering them into kitsch. Our gaze is distracted, then, from looking at the work. When the artist painted, they gave us as an invitation and a challenge; they dared us to look head-on. Instead, we avert our eyes and pay heed to its trappings. Living Modern risks consigning O’Keeffe to this same worn trivialization by emphasizing her role as an idol instead of an artist.

In the quiet room where I sat after leaving the Klein slideshow, I was alone with O’Keeffe’s later-life wrap dresses, which lined a hanging bar, subtle and intimate, unadorned and smock-like. There is no armor there: just a woman at home in her own skin. For all the places the exhibit stumbles, there is a genuine power in moments like this, where Corn’s vision reemerges and we can feel, again, the full impact of the show’s intimacy. Nearby, in a photograph by Tony Vaccaro, we glimpse O’Keeffe’s eye poking through the hole in a slice of swiss cheese, her expression one of deadpan seriousness. There is a quality of playfulness in these later portraits, a way that O’Keeffe insists on herself. Then, rounding the far corner, backtracking through the exhibit, the curator showcases the enlarging, euphoric relief of O’Keeffe’s New Mexico paintings: the sky through the organic, oblong openings of a bleached pelvis – the whole world turned to color and undulations of shape, abstracted from nature to say something larger about life.

It may be that Living Modern works best through implication, through these subtle evocations and sensuality. It operates best in the sudden, moving intimacy of fabric, in the dozen folds of pintucks, in the visual language that reverberates across the exhibit space. This show is at once a testimony against, and an illustration of, the dangers of the reductive powers of art criticism, particularly for women, who are often objectified and appropriated, deprived of the dynamic voice they bring to their own art. And yet, Living Modern conveys O’Keeffe’s dynamism. For all that it stumbles in its execution, it’s impossible not to feel its value, and the ephemeral experience it creates. When it comes to an artist like O’Keeffe, whom we so seldom stop to view, anew, we need such immediacy to startle us back into the openness of wonder. We need multiple paths of understanding, the spacious unsayable of the felt.

2 Comments

  • Anon says:

    This writing follows a fairly straightforward path off of Barthes’ Death of the Author and mixes in bits of what I think is, surprisingly, a fairly antiquated feminism.
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    Like yes, in a way the very concept of a show on the clothing of a painter who is a woman plays the game of leveling the playing field between her paintings and her image (“both objects” ). But the more that O’Keefe’s body of work gets rotated and we see her final works as well as her first works in new lights, the thing that seems to stay core to her work is her experience of being there — her meditative practice of the everyday.
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    I think of C Kraus discussing how the feminine is endlessly pressured to be less personal, to be more sterile and analytical, and how absurd a request it is. Why should O’Keefe’s work have to fit into how we think “a man’s work might be shown” when we can learn how to embrace the personal and stop thinking of these works as petrified stones existing in a vacuum from everything else, and perhaps more radically shift our understanding of the role of the artist.
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    Your tone is so mocking when you imply [how could she have equal care for her clothing as she did for her innovative art]? I can’t help but feel like you play yourself with that line by fetishizing her genius when she was, in fact, a person who made these paintings as an artist, not an icon, one brushstroke after another.

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