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Living Modern: Not Your Grandparents’ Georgia O’Keeffe Exhibition

Georgia O’Keeffe with Painting in the Desert, N.M., 1960. Tony Vaccaro (American, b. 1922). Chromogenic print; 35.2 x 45.7 cm (13 7/8 x 18 in.). Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2007.3.2. Photo: Tony Vaccaro/Tony Vaccaro Studio

Now open at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern takes a close look at the fiercely independent artist who defied the conventions of her time. Through her art and wardrobe, and through photographic portraits in which she is the subject, a striking image emerges of a thoroughly modern artist — one who crafted her own public persona and, in doing so, became a household name.

Mark Cole, interim chair of modern, contemporary, and decorative art and curator of American painting and sculpture, shared his thoughts on O’Keeffe and the modernist aesthetic she forged.

What does Living Modern refer to?

Living Modern nicely encapsulates the overriding theme of the show, revealing that O’Keeffe was modern not just in her art but also in her life. The exhibition makes fascinating connections between her art, lifestyle, clothing, and home décor, and by the way she presented herself in portraits taken by a wide range of photographers. By means of modern media, she became as famous for how she lived and dressed as for what she painted. I think it’s safe to say O’Keeffe was the first American artist to attain celebrity status. By taking this multifaceted approach, Living Modern ultimately offers a thoroughly fresh look at O’Keeffe and her art. It’s not your grandparents’ O’Keeffe exhibition!

Georgia O’Keeffe, c. 1920–22. Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946). Gelatin silver print; 11.4 x 9 cm (4 1/2 x 3 9/16 in.). Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM, Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, 2003.01.006

This exhibition has had sizeable attendance at every stop on its tour. Why do you think it has resonated with so many?

O’Keeffe is one of only a handful of truly iconic American painters, someone whose fame has crossed beyond the art world arena to the world at large. Because of her tremendous talents as an artist, her status as a trailblazer, and her captivating life story, she resonates on many different levels for many different people. In general, exhibitions of O’Keeffe’s art are well attended, but in the case of Living Modern, audiences appear to be drawn to the unprecedented opportunity to get to know the person behind the art.

“…in the case of Living Modern, audiences appear to be drawn to the unprecedented opportunity to get to know the person behind the art.” — Mark Cole, interim chair of modern, contemporary, and decorative art and curator of American painting and sculpture

On another level, the show has generated a great deal of critical praise for its groundbreaking integration of art and material culture. In other words, O’Keeffe’s art is not viewed in isolation but as part and parcel of a unified personal aesthetic. Visitors are pleased to be coming away from Living Modern with an understanding of the artist’s philosophy of living, which is both appealing and inspiring.

The name Georgia O’Keeffe typically elicits thoughts of her flower paintings and desert landscapes, but there is so much more to this exhibition. What else can visitors expect to see?

The exhibition showcases approximately 140 objects that include more than two dozen artworks by O’Keeffe in a wisely curated survey of her more than 60-year career. Of course, her widely admired flower subjects, American Southwest landscapes, and paintings of sun-bleached animal bones make key appearances. But visitors also will encounter less familiar, equally engaging works, ranging from an abstract sculpture from 1916 that she made in response to her mother’s death from tuberculosis, to one of her last creations — a poignant watercolor from 1979, completed just as macular degeneration tragically ended her art-making days.

Other surprises await, too. Perhaps not as many people are familiar with her paintings inspired by architecture, whether new-fangled Manhattan skyscrapers or the rural adobe homes she renovated for living and studio space in New Mexico. Even less well known are a wonderful series of aerial-view landscapes from the 1960s, inspired by plane travel and her love of Asian art and calligraphy.

Also, for the first time ever, articles of clothing that O’Keeffe created or purchased for herself are on public view, and it is remarkable how closely they connect to her art. O’Keeffe was an excellent seamstress, mastering techniques such as pin tucking to such a degree that it takes a magnifying glass to confirm her garments are indeed hand stitched and not machine sewn.

Left: Black Pansy & Forget-Me-Nots (Pansy), 1926. Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887‒1986). Oil on canvas; 68.9 x 31.1 cm (27 1/8 x 12 1/4 in.). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of Mrs. Alfred S. Rossin, 28.521. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Photo: Christine Gant, Brooklyn Museum; Right: Blouse (detail), c. early to mid-1930s. Attributed to Georgia O’Keeffe. White linen. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM, Gift of Juan and Anna Marie Hamilton, 2000.03.0248. Photo © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

By all accounts, Georgia O’Keeffe was fiercely independent.

She certainly was! O’Keeffe had little patience for many traditional roles and expectations assigned to women during her era. The fact that she emerged from a Victorian upbringing to become a professional artist at a time when this was not encouraged as a career option for women is a fundamental case in point. Her desire for independence infused many aspects of her life. For instance, although she loved her husband and enjoyed being married, she refused to follow the convention of adopting his last name. During the last 15 years of their marriage, she spent several months a year in New Mexico, seeking the degree of solitude necessary for her to paint, while her husband stayed behind in New York.

Georgia O’Keeffe at Yosemite, 1938. Ansel Adams (American, 1902–1984). Gelatin silver print; 5 3/4 x 3 3/8 in. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM, Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, 2006.06.0856. © 2016 The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

As evident in Living Modern, O’Keeffe’s clothing choices featured elements of gender nonconformity. If for reasons of comfort, convenience, style, or statement, she wanted to wear men’s shirts, pants, or suits, then she did so without any qualms. Furthermore, throughout her life, O’Keeffe did not at all want to be qualified by her gender, which is why she always bristled at being referred to as a “woman artist” rather than simply an “artist.”

The CMA has a special relationship with Georgia O’Keeffe, given our early purchase of some of her works of art. What else can you tell us about the CMA and O’Keeffe?

We were one of the first museums — if not the first — to purchase one of her flower paintings. Apparently this was an honor she never forgot, for upon her death more than a half-century later, she bequeathed to the Cleveland Museum of Art five paintings from various stages of her career. Two of these canvases, Dead Tree with Pink Hill (1945) and Sunflower, New Mexico, I (1935) are featured in Living Modern. Another work from this set is on view in our American Modern gallery 226.

Dead Tree with Pink Hill, 1945. Georgia O’Keeffe (American, 1887–1986). Oil on canvas, Framed: 76.5 x 102 x 3 cm (30 1/8 x 40 3/16 x 1 3/16 in.); Unframed: 76.2 x 101.6 cm (30 x 40 in.). Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe 1987.138

Our archives reveal she intermittently visited the CMA during her regular cross-country trips between New Mexico and New York, and she even served as a co-juror for the “May Show” annual exhibition of local art in 1937. Writing to CMA director William M. Milliken during the early 1950s, O’Keeffe stated, “I always remember your museum as a very alive pleasant place.”

But there was also one occasion when she contacted us to scold! After viewing Morning Glory with Black (1926), on loan from the CMA to an exhibition in Texas during the mid-1960s, she conveyed her disappointment that it was not properly framed. She was right: at some unknown point, its original, graceful silver-gilt clamshell frame had been replaced by a frame of blunt design painted gray. Unfortunately, budget concerns at the time did not allow for this to be addressed. However, I’m happy to report that we rectified the situation a couple of years ago by reframing the painting in just the way she preferred. I hasten to add that visitors will see this stunning painting-and-frame ensemble in Living Modern.

Georgia O’Keeffe on Ghost Ranch Portal, New Mexico, c. 1960s. Todd Webb (American, 1905–2000). Gelatin silver print; 25.4 x 20.3 cm (10 x 8 in.). Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, NM, Gift of the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, 2006.06.1046. © Estate of Todd Webb, Portland, ME

Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern is organized by the Brooklyn Museum with guest curator Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor Emerita in Art History, Stanford University and made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Check out the Ideastream review here.

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