Georgia O’Keeffe always stood out. As a boarding student at Chatham Episcopal School in the early 1900s, while her Kappa Delta classmates puffed up their ‘dos and wore uniforms of puffy dresses and prominent black bows, O’Keeffe tied her hair back in a severe braid, adjusted the dress to fit her form, and all but jettisoned the bow. Of all her peers in this conga line-style photo shoot, she seems to be the only one who isn’t playing—and dressing—a part.
Her personal school portrait, circa 1903, is just as striking, and just as contra. In it, she gazes downward and appears sullen a century before melancholy-chic became a social media archetype. It’s a prescient image. In photograph after photograph, for the next eight or nine decades of her rich life, O’Keeffe would strike similar poses for the camera: enigmatic, androgynous and above all without a smile.
And yet, as the Norton Museum of Art’s sprawling and important exhibition “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern” reveals, the iconoclastic painter was by no means unhappy. She was just a diligent subject for her photographer husband, Alfred Stiglitz, who directed her unsmiling gaze for upwards of 300 photographs during their life together. In certain photos by other major talents—among them Cecil Beaton and Ansel Adams—she smiles warmly, as if unshackled from filling the role of moody muse. In one late photograph of O’Keeffe on her “Ghost Ranch” in New Mexico, the work is even titled “Mirthful.”
The idea of O’Keeffe as a person of stark gloom isn’t the only misconception of her persona that “Living Modern” exposes. It also debunks the sexual subtext of her floral paintings, an interpretation that has found purchase in pop-critical circles of the art world for generations. It seems her goal was not to subliminally evoke reproductive organs but to make us look, intently and intensely, at the sort of natural phenomena we take for granted.
This is one of the jobs of blockbuster shows like this—to not simply review the record of an iconic artist but to unearth new insights through the research, curation and exhibition of the work—and “Living Modern” earns every square inch of the five or six galleries (the floor plans at the Norton are so spacious and open now that it’s hard to count them) that it consumes. Originated by the Brooklyn Museum and now on tour, the exhibit’s goal is to forge connections between every aspect of O’Keeffe’s being, from her clothing choices to her brush strokes—twinning her life and art as if they were strands of a double helix.
O’Keeffe’s apparel stands at the center of most galleries, and this alone is a potent expression of her evolution. Black and white, alone or in combination, were favored shades, from monastic capes and other dark garments fit for a nunnery or Amish village, to handmade tunics, underdresses and bolero jackets the color of ivory or eggnog, all of them seemingly from the same fashion house’s understated collection. According to an article about O’Keeffe from 1929: “If she started picking out colors for dresses, she would have no time for painting.”
When she designed her own clothing, O’Keeffe valued efficiency over ornamentation, and while some images of her evoke austere stills from Bergman films, her later style challenges this assessment. When she moved from New York to New Mexico and, later, when she traveled frequently to Asia, her couture changed with the climate and culture. She wore B.F. Goodrich sneakers, Levi’s bluejeans, bandannas and Stetson vaquero hats that wouldn’t have looked out of place on Lee Marvin in an old western. We encounter shirts made from red plaid fabric, and kimono-style dresses full of Duchampian spirals. She wore Lord & Taylor, Salvatore Ferragamo, Neiman Marcus and Balenciaga, becoming a veritable fashion plate in her later life.
Photographs of O’Keeffe line the walls throughout the galleries, charting her progression from stoic artist in the big city to accidental feminist symbol enjoying a quiet range life. They are interspersed with a smattering of O’Keeffe’s paintings, and while “Living Modern” is by no means a comprehensive survey of her art, it manages to showcase both familiar works—her enveloping, billowing, bigger-than-life evocation of a morning glory—and her formative and unsung experiments, like 1908’s impressionistic “Dead Rabbit With Copper Pot,” from her time as a student of William Merritt Chase. The fur on the title animal’s flesh is almost tactile.
“Sky Above the Flat White Clouds,” from 1960, is an absorbing work of minimalism that shows O’Keeffe could more than keep up with the expressionist renegades of the era. “Road to the Ranch,” circa 1964, is a beguiling mix of abstraction and figuration, as a rippling ribbon becomes a road winding through the red hills of New Mexico.
But the exhibition remains about her person as much as her work. By the end of her life, she was a fixture in glossy magazines and a figure of enormous influence for women in the creative arts. The most surprising piece in “Living Modern”—an Andy Warhol screenprint of O’Keeffe, appearing ghostly and diamond-dusted—shows just how far her unlikely celebrity star had ascended.
“Living Modern” is the all-encompassing tribute O’Keeffe has deserved for decades. Somewhere, I think, she’s looking down on this exhibition—and smiling.
“Living Modern” runs through Feb. 2 at Norton Museum of Art, 1450 S. Dixie Highway, West Palm Beach. Admission costs $15 to $18 Sun.-Thurs., and is free to the public Fridays and Saturdays. Call 561/832-5196 or visit norton.org.