Not Much Time Left to See O'Keeffe in Salem


Peabody Essex Museum (Salem, MA)
Through April 1

You don't have much time left to catch the Georgia O'Keeffe extravaganza at the Peabody Essex Museum. I'd like to suggest you rearrange your schedule to do so.

O'Keeffe (1887-1986) has been iconic for so long, that many people assume there's not much left to discover. It is well documented that young O'Keeffe dazzled teachers at the University of Chicago and everywhere else she studied. She was in Virginia when pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) organized her first solo show in 1915. Three years later he convinced her to move to New York and the two were married in 1924, though he was twenty-three years her senior. 

We know this, just as we are aware that marrying an older man was just the tip of the iceberg of her unconventional life. She was equal parts artistic genius, bohemian, rebel, and (fiercely) independent. Within her lifetime, she was lionized by feminists for the strong vulvar imagery in her canvases, especially depictions of flowers, but also in the folds of canyon lands in her beloved adopted state of New Mexico. She began spending time in 1929 and moved there full time when Stieglitz died in 1946.

So what's left to tell? Sometimes the least discussed aspects of a famous person's life are things that are hidden in plain view. It seems Ms. O'Keeffe was also a clotheshorse with a fondness for fine threads. That's the "style" part of the Peabody Essex show and when you look at the "image" part of it—the many photos taken by Stieglitz, Tony Vacarro and others, it's so obvious that we wonder why it took so long for anyone to launch a show comparable to this one. Perhaps it's because it doesn't fit as well into the nonconformity narratives we impose, or perhaps it's simpler: her art is so powerful that it simply dominates our minds as well as our eyes.

O'Keeffe's fashion sense is the first revelation of the show. The second is equally obvious, but makes perfect sense. We know that O'Keeffe's subject matter changed dramatically when she was in the Southwest, but so too did her entire sense of color. Her New York paintings were black and gray with splashes of color used for dramatic, often geometric, effect. In New Mexico, bold color is often dominant. Elsewhere the grays give way to azure blue, golden adobe, bright white, and textured beige. After seeing New Mexico, O'Keeffe's 1949 rendering of the Brooklyn Bridge makes perfect sense.

It's reflected in her clothing as well. When O'Keeffe painted in New York, she dressed the part of an avant-garde cosmopolitan. She especially liked being draped in silk. In New Mexico, her work clothes of choice were denim. She still enjoyed fine couture such as hand-stitched cuffs and fitted dresses, but her wardrobe was brighter.

I'm not sure what O'Keeffe would have thought about a show spotlighting on her closet. I'm pretty sure she's be appalled by one the videos—of a fashion show filmed in the desert of clothing "inspired" her art and fashion sense. It's hard to imagine she'd have anything but scorn for the waif-like vacant-eyed models and she might even tut-tut the idea of being an object of another's gaze—though surely she played that role for Stieglitz, some of whose photos of her focused on her body parts (fingers, breasts, segments of her face) rather than the whole. There is, though, a difference; Stieglitz was unquestionably artistic in her endeavors and both he and O'Keeffe held progressive views that were critical of commercialism.

This, however, is an incidental observation on my part. The Peabody Essex show rightly lists "art" as primary. You will see a few well-known paintings, but other revelations come in the form of less familiar paintings.

As I said, the clock is ticking. Run; don't walk.  Check out also the spectacular T C Cannon show in the same museum—to be reviewed next month.

Rob Weir

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