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Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style

Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts
Through April 1, 2018

Georgia O’Keeffe, Abiquiu, N. M. Photographed with her sculpture, Abstraction, by Bruce Weber, 1984. Gelatin silver print, 14 × 11 inches, Bruce Weber and Nan Bush Collection, New York. © Bruce Weber

As an art history major who minored in painting, I was captivated by the body of work of Georgia O’Keeffe, which was oversim­plified in the last decades of her life into a story of enlarged flowers and Southwestern landscape paintings. That, of course, is not the whole story, which this show conveys with a tantalizing, visually powerful dive into the legend, capturing the beautiful dance of influence and inspiration between the painter’s work and the artist’s image.

As designers, we can relate: There are the persistent jokes about all-black clothing and other details of professional culture that influence our uniforms. Physical presentation, how it relates to the body of work, and the careful curation behind the image is an engaging process, and the exhibition deftly juxtaposes O’Keeffe’s artwork with her wardrobe: the early years (sans ornamentation) to her New York period (a black-and-white palette) to the New Mexico years (the surrounding landscape). In that vein, the viewer begins to reconsider her seemingly simplistic uniform — black Stetson, V-neck dress, or denim work smock — as indicative of her Modernist sensibilities.

O’Keeffe’s appearance through the lens of her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and that of her friends, including Ansel Adams, represent an enduring image of the artist. She actively participated in their compositions, adjusting the garments she wore and letting those assessments echo into her work. The exhibit’s first pairing — a painting titled In the Patio IX and her Emilio Pucci Chute dress — reflects this with perfect clarity. The deep V neckline O’Keeffe favored worked as well on her body, whether in a dress, suit coat, or kimono, as in her art, and it became the ubiquitous formal gesture of her tops.

The show also highlights the role her own hand played in her image. The hemstitch on a series of elegant white blouses is by a master seamstress and feels connected to the nuance she pursues in her flower and skull paintings, at once detailed and elegantly simplistic. There are rows of her favorite Ferragamo flats and Marimekkos, including the classic striped Jokapoika shirt dress (an architect’s favorite print for casual wear!). When not in black, she favored restrained tones of sky and earth with simple stitching details or, in the case of a kimono, a spiral pattern that evokes one of her sculptures. This dimensional medium is not often associated with her body of work, but Abstraction makes me feel as if I am in the center of one of the skulls she collected during her desert walks. Art reflects nature, which in turn resonates in her attire and presentation.

O’Keeffe was a true American original, a fact this exhibit celebrates with a strikingly understated elegance, just like the artist herself.