Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern offers a new outlook on the unconventional and
revolutionary lifestyle of one of the 20th century’s most notable artists. Through O’Keeffe’s
paintings, clothing she sewed and wore, shoes she liked to wear, and photographs taken of her, a
true profile takes form and leaves plenty of room for observers to learn more and piece together
her story. With featured works from Ansel Adams, Alfred Stieglitz, Annie Leibovitz, and several
others, different aspects of O’Keeffe’s personal and professional life come into the foreground.
As one enters, they are immediately told the story of O’Keeffe’s beginnings, from the
start of her signature flowers, as large as buildings, to her decades in New York City, to her
husband, Alfred Stieglitz, who often featured her in his photographs. Select demure clothing she
created and wore stands in the center of each section–often black and white dresses, affixed with
capes or faux collars or her favorite buttons. The plaques accompanying each artifact are
informative and engaging, making it easy for visitors to quickly become attached and involved in
the peculiar life of O’Keeffe. Towards the end of the exhibition, for example, stands an unusual
hat attributed to Zoë de Salle, a New York designer whom O’Keeffe likely purchased it from.
Called a “wool helmet,” derived from what aviators wore during World War II, O’Keeffe found
it an invaluable addition to her collection, and wore it out for decades. This hat, along with her
sneakers on display, her experimentation with blue jeans, and her handmade pieces, all tie in
together to present a unique perspective on how O’Keeffe molded her public identity through
what she wore and what she chose to be photographed in. Perhaps as best explained by Frances
O’Brien, longtime friend of O’Keeffe’s, “ Georgia O’Keeffe has never allowed her life to be one
thing and her painting another.”
Because of the mixed media presented throughout, this exhibition succeeds in developing
O’Keeffe as more than a painter who strayed away from the stiff, Victorian world she was born
in in favor of a more unorthodox style of living. Much of the information provided alongside the
pieces does not generalize O’Keeffe, or attempt to define her outright. Instead, it is the
observer’s responsibility to come to their own conclusions about who she was as the core of her
person, apart from her paintings.
In doing this, as opposed to framing O’Keeffe in less subtle ways, the exhibition stands
out as one that promotes varied interpretations of O’Keeffe’s identity, creating a more personal
experience for the observer. For example, one artifact presented is a brass pin made by sculptor
Alexander Calder for O’Keeffe, which clearly reads as OK , the first two letters of her last name.
However, it is written that instead of wearing the pin horizontally, O’Keeffe preferred to wear it
vertically to represent one of her plant-like abstractions. O’Keeffe’s personality shines through in
this tidbit, and others, and it is up to the individual to make sense of it.
Each section of the exhibition covers a different period of her life, ranging from her years
in New York in the 1920s and 1930s, to her years spent in New Mexico, where she fell in love
with the desert and made it a common subject in her later works. The location itself also pays
homage to O’Keeffe’s first public exhibition, which took place at the Brooklyn Museum.
The exhibition is part of a yearlong series celebrating the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for
Feminist Art. It was structured by guest curator Wanda M. Corn, Robert and Ruth Halperin
Professor Emerita in Art History, Stanford University, and coordinated by Lisa Small, curator of
European Painting and Sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum .