Few American painters captured the popular consciousness in the twentieth century quite like Georgia O’Keeffe. The über-talented modernist—most closely associated with the American Southwest and the vibrant, abstract landscapes and flowers she created in that setting—is the subject of the captivating exhibit “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” on view now at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach through February 2.
Organized by the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the show covers 8,000 square feet and features some 184 photographs, paintings, and items of clothing, some of which she sewed herself and others that were custom made specifically for her. This is the first exhibit dedicated to one major painter to occupy this new gallery space, and the show upholds the Norton’s commitment to “bringing the highest quality exhibitions to this region,” says Elliot Bostwick Davis, the museum’s director and CEO. “We couldn’t have done this show before the expansion.”
In addition to the Norton being the final venue on its national tour, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern” is the first significant O’Keeffe exhibit to be presented in this region in more than a decade. As Ellen R. Roberts, the Norton’s Harold and Anne Berkeley Smith Curator of American Art, notes, when O’Keeffe died, she left behind a considerable amount of clothing in her home in New Mexico. This show is the first major presentation of these pieces, one that seeks to figure out, “how hey fit in with the rest of her oeuvre,” says Roberts.
The Norton enlisted the services of Brooklyn-based design firm Matter Architecture Practice to help structure the installation of the exhibit, and the result is an austere canvas that takes cues from O’Keeffe’s New Mexico homes and presents a minimalist backdrop to her clothing and accessories, paintings and photographs. “O’Keeffe wanted to spend her time painting, not choosing what she was going to wear,” says Roberts. As a result, much of the clothing is of a similar cut and in hues of black, white, beige, and muted colors. This wardrobe was very in step with the artist’s persona as a modern minimalist more preoccupied with the pursuit of her craft than anything else. “The clothing has a lot to do with how she projected herself as a person, and that has a lot to do with her art.”
Of course, that persona was also captured in numerous images by some of the century’s most talented photographers. There are many pics by Alfred Stieglitz, whom O’Keeffe was married to until his death in 1946, and together, these shots present a “continuous portrait of O’Keeffe,” says Roberts, an endeavor Stieglitz undertook with the goal of “capturing her overall being as a woman.”
O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s relationship was primarily focused in New York City, and, when O’Keeffe relocated to New Mexico in 1929, she began to reinvent herself, a transformation captured in her personal artwork, her clothing, and photos of her. She started wearing more denim and adopted her signature Stetson hat. In photographs taken by the great Ansel Adams, whom she shared a friendship with, she appears more warm and open than she does in the subdued shots by Stieglitz.
One of the most exciting turns in the exhibition takes place in the final annex, which features some of her more Asian-inspired fashions, calligraphic-inspired paintings, and one gorgeous sculpture. Here, visitors can view some of her beloved kimonos and see how she frequently wore men’s kimonos as a painting smock. This space also boasts her Life magazine cover, a few of her suits, an “O.K.” pin created just for her by Alexander Calder, and a small selection of wrap dresses all identical except for their color.
These elements combine to give a thorough impression of O’Keeffe as an artist, person, and feminist icon. Fans of the famed modernist, as well as those discovering her for the first time, will find something to love in this exhibition, which portrays her as both a strong, independent woman and one of the most formidable creatives in recent history.