State of the Arts: Looking Into Georgia O'Keeffe's Closet

Dec 14, 2018

The long career of Georgia O'Keeffe is being re-examined at the Cleveland Museum of Art. The exhibit "Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern" is an ode to how an accomplished seamstress and talented painter became one of the country’s most beloved artists. On this week’s State of the Arts, WKSU's Mark Arehart walks through decades of her artwork, clothing and photographs.

O'Keeffe is known for her colorful paintings of flowers, animal bones and the vibrant beauty of the Southwest. But she got her start as a little-known painter with an ever-evolving style that changed as she grew from an artist into an icon.

"O'Keeffe never really drew a boundary between the art that she made and the life that she led," Curator Mark Cole said as he ushered me through the exhibit. 

He said the show gives a rare view of O'Keeffe, through her artwork and her wardrobe.

"And I have to tell you this is the first time that I’ve been involved overseeing the dressing of a mannequin," he said with a smile. 

He points to three dresses that feature crisp, pleated fronts, probably sewn by the artist herself, on display next to one of her early paintings.

"And it sort of sets the stage for the theme of the exhibition which is the connections that one finds in her artwork and her life. She dressed a certain way that interestingly enough mirrors some of the artistic principles we see in her paintings," Cole said. 

A decorative flower pattern on a blouse can be found repeated in an oil painting. The necklines of blouses are found throughout her abstract work.

Starting Out
In the 1920s she gained recognition for a series of paintings of the New York skyline.

"Her palate when she lived in New York was mostly black and white, and at the time we also see her exploring in her artwork an interest in black and white, using them as if they were full colors."

These gradients of black and white can be seen in a large abstract painting of buildings almost crawling on top of one another.

The grays and creams stand out drastically against bright reds and blues. There are even a few blooming flowers that would later become cornerstones of her painting.

Several people walking through the exhibit said they had no idea her early work was so different.

"And so I’m interested to see how it progressed from this to what we’re more familiar with I think," Jennifer Lennon said. "I actually didn’t know that she was a seamstress or that she loved clothes or anything like that. So that definitely caught me by surprise." 

The Artist in Photographs
Around this same point in O'Keeffe's career she met the man who would become her husband, photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz.

"And he took more than 300 photographs of her in their relationship. And from him, she learned how to pose for the camera," Cole said.

Together they formed a partnership that would start O'Keeffe on the path to fame.

"And in a way they became promotional photographs as this very talented, independent woman. This modern woman in effect," he said. 

Photographs of O'Keeffe, often stoic and immaculately dressed are strewn throughout the exhibit.

I meet Bonnie Korodi sitting on a bench taking in several black and white photos. "I kind of admire the fact that she didn’t adorn herself in anyway. She looks masculine in fact in a couple of these photos of her," she said. 

Curator Mark Cole said O'Keeffe often wore men’s clothing. "She was always an artist who bristled at being called a ‘woman artist.' She wanted to be known as an 'artist.' And so gender issues were things she didn’t want to be held back by."

O'Keeffe in New Mexico
Her clothing changes when she starts to spend time living and working in New Mexico. She starts wearing bandanas, a Stetson hat and even blue jeans, which she called America's national costume.

You can see denim blues reflected in pastel skies and the deep reds of mountains reflected in accents in dresses.

"I think the fact that she was this lone woman living out in the rural areas of America's Southwest, in this rugged terrain, sort of raised a level of curiosity in regard to her," Cole said.

The last portion of the exhibit is all about O'Keeffe as a national celebrity.

"Right, toward the end of the 1950s and beginning into the 1960s Georgia O’Keeffe started becoming famous not just for what she made, but also for the life that she led."

She's on the cover of Life magazine and in one of Andy Warhol's famous silk screens. It's all paired with the sharp lines of the immaculate Italian suits she wore later in her career. 

It's through this wardrobe that we see a different side of Georgia O'Keeffe.

"You get a chance, I think, to learn more about O'Keeffe as a person. And in some way this presents a more holistic view of O'Keeffe as an artist and a modern woman."

"Georgia O'Keeffe: Living Modern" was organized by the Brooklyn Museum. It's on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art through March 3.