Saturday, 8 July 2017

Learning More about Georgia O'Keefe

Ram's Head, White Hollyhock-Hills encapsulates O'Keefe's art and life
Yesterday we went to the Brooklyn Museum to see Georgia O'Keefe: Living Modern that ends July 23. She is an artist I have admired for a long time and many years ago copied her paintings in pastel. She encouraged me to be fearless, using big strokes, and express myself through vibrant colours.

Four cream-coloured outfits O'Keefe made early in her life
We caught the museum's 1pm tour through the exhibit and the docent was very knowledgeable about O'Keefe and picked certain pieces to show how the curators presented the show.

It wasn't just about O'Keefe's paintings, but also her clothing, a few miscellaneous things from her home and many photographs of her in the clothing, hats and shoes that were also exhibited.

She was born in Wisconsin in 1887 and at a young age showed a talent for art. The family moved to Virginia and when she was a teenager studied at the School of Art Institute of Chicago.

Later she taught art and as our guide explained, after work she would work on her own art, creating abstract watercolours. A friend showed them to Alfred Stieglitz, a well known photographer and art dealer in New York who was impressed by such modern art by a female artist.

This painting was first shown at the museum
He sold some of her pieces -- over US$1,000 in the late 1920s which was a lot of money in those days -- and eventually the two fell in love. Stieglitz was married at the time with a daughter, and was 23 years older than O'Keefe, but he divorced and married O'Keefe.

They lived in Manhattan and one of the paintings shown in the exhibition was of the New York skyline -- something that was usually depicted by men and not women. But O'Keefe was keen to show that she too could do it too -- and just as well. Not only did she paint the skyscrapers, but also in pink, and with three flowers to give them a feminine touch.

At the time she was known for her flower paintings. Women usually painted flowers, but they were small most of the time. O'Keefe felt if she painted flowers really small, no one would notice, so why not big too, like skyscrapers?

She also insisted there wasn't any deeper meanings behind the some 200 flower paintings she made, as some tried to insinuate there were sexual meanings behind the works.

Pink skyscrapers and flowers
One of the paintings on show is called Black Pansy & Forget-Me-Nots painted in 1926 and our guide explained it was first shown in a solo exhibition O'Keefe had in the Brooklyn Museum in 1927.

At the show, one of her friends bought the painting and O'Keefe managed to persuade that person to donate it to the museum afterwards. O'Keefe also gave some of her works during her lifetime to the museum, and after her death.

Our guide pointed out that many of O'Keefe's clothes were monochromatic -- she didn't want to have to worry about colour in her wardrobe when she would rather focus on the colours of her canvas.

Featured in the exhibition are several items of clothing, cream-coloured dresses she made and they are very delicate and reveal her skill in dressmaking. There are also a trio of white blouses, one of which shows very fine tailoring and could very easily be worn today.

She also had a penchant for black with a bit of white contrasting, be it from the collar of a shirt or the cuffs of shirts sticking out from black blazers. Later on she was obsessed about the V-shape and many dresses and jackets had this shape, whether the neckline or pattern on dresses.

One of the delicate blouses O'Keefe made
As more of her work was sold, she and Stieglitz would move to higher floors in the hotel apartment building they lived in. And this wealth would also help O'Keefe become even more independent, buying a car and buying a home and then another one in New Mexico.

She first went there in 1929 thanks to the patronage of an heiress, and O'Keefe immediately fell in love with the place and kept going back there every year until she finally settled there.

In New Mexico she stopped wearing suits and adopted denim as her fabric of choice, wearing shirts, jeans and even fashioned a Chinese-style dress out of the blue cotton.

However, after O'Keefe's first visit to New Mexico for six months, she came back to New York to find Stieglitz was having an affair with another woman; O'Keefe was devastated and even suffered a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized in 1933, mostly because her husband was continuing with the affair.

O'Keefe then finally moved to New Mexico in 1940, purchasing a home there, but then Stieglitz fell ill in 1946 with cerebral thrombosis and she flew back immediately to tend to him until he died in July that year.

A Chinese-style outfit she had made in HK
It took her three years to finally finish dealing with his estate before she permanently moved to New Mexico in 1949. There she was obsessed with painting a mountain called Cerro Pedernal.

One of her works, Ram's Head, White Hollyhock-Hills painted in 1935 encapsulates O'Keefe with the animal skull, a flower and her favourite mountain.

Interestingly there are two outfits shown that have a Hong Kong connection. In 1959 and 1960 she traveled there and got some outfits made, one very east-meets-west, the other looking like a very masculine Chinese robe.

In 1972 she lost most of her eyesight due to macular degeneration and couldn't paint anymore, though photographers would make pilgrimages to New Mexico to take pictures of her. The show has portraits of her by Yousuf Karsh, Bruce Weber, Ansel Adams and Todd Webb.

Andy Warhol also wanted a piece of her and invited her to come to New York to The Factory where he made a silkscreen of her in the same colour as the adobe home she lived in, and was sprinkled with diamond dust. Wonder what she thought of that.

A portrait of O'Keefe in a kimono by Bruce Weber
O'Keefe died in 1986, just shy of her 99th birthday. Art historians like to say she was the first American contemporary artist. Apparently she bequeathed all her things to a very young assistant called Juan Hamilton and her siblings went to court to fight for estate. In the end it was settled out of court.

Learned so much about this remarkable woman and feel inspired by her artistry in art and in life.

Georgia O'Keefe: Living Modern
Until July 23, 2017
Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway


  1. Hi Fragrant Harbour,

    I first linked to your site via YTSL, and have long enjoyed your reportage of current events in HK. However,it is your travel and arts entries that I especially enjoy. Going back to much older posts, one that stands out is your QM2 cruise, which included a memorable entry on the World Trade Center Memorial.

    This O'Keefe blog has special meaning for me because I resided in Park Slope Brooklyn for many years and would often walk to the Brooklyn Museum...In addition to O'Keefe, another female multi-talented artist I like is Dorothea Tanning, who was married to fellow artist, Max Ernst.

    I look forward to continuing to visit your eclectic web site.

    Fl, USA

    1. HI Bill

      Thanks for the kind words!

      The Brooklyn Museum is a great space, and enjoyed the O'Keefe show because it was so comprehensive.