Life has become all about brand identity. At least it would seem that those who work in the public eye, like artists (musicians, actors, artists, dancers), athletes and politicians must craft their lives to fit an overarching brand.
That brand must reflect who you are at some core level and then have the ability to propel your “message” forward into the world without having to sit there and guide it.
This holistic self-brand identity may have always been the way things were. Certainly when we look at ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome, we see imagery and messages carved in stone that describe a set of values reflective of their cultures. Now we see similar things reflected in our websites, social media and in how we craft the “message” of who we are as a people.
These things are not always done for political gains. Rather, they highlight important values; in the case of an artist, values about shape, color, form and style that show the world the things the artist holds most dear.
"Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern" at the Cleveland Museum of Art is an opportunity to look at one of the 20th century’s most iconic American artists from the point of view of her personal style and public persona. It's not just a show of her paintings; rather it exhibits photos of how the artist grew into the icon she became, with paintings, clothing and jewelry used to display and support O’Keeffe as a harbinger of art and style, as well a trailblazer for how we can live and value things, most importantly things made by hand.
The exhibit winds you, literally, along a thoughtfully laid-out path that highlights the artist's childhood and artistic beginnings, eventually ending in her well-documented home in New Mexico. Along the path are landmarks of her life, her marriage, her artwork, her clothes, and images taken of her by her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and many other friends and acquaintances throughout her life. It’s something of an unexpected take on O’Keeffe, even if you set aside the time to read up about what you are about to see before you go.
So much of what has been shared about her life is condensed down to just her paintings and shallow touches on who she was or might have been. It’s refreshing to have the opportunity to see a more complete picture of O’Keeffe, how strong and visionary she was, and how that bled over into every aspect of how she lived. Ultimately, it's an uplifting and hopeful reflection about a person who has shaped so much of our national aesthetic and identity.
"Georgia O’Keeffe, c. 1920–22" is a relatively small photograph, 4 1/2 x 3 9/16 inches, taken by Stieglitz. In the image, O’Keeffe stands wrapped in a cape or dark colored blanket with a bowler style hat on her head. Only her face is exposed, and behind her is what appears to be a vast landscape.
Here, we see some of the simple style so loved by the artist, broad swaths of one-color clothing, an outfit that is thoughtfully chosen though simple. The landscape backdrop creates a sculptural effect that blurs the line of artist/object/human being and lays a groundwork to see her not only as a person with vision, but one who lived her style in every moment and action.
"Wrap Dress, c. 1960s–70s" is made of cotton dyed black with a white cotton inner garment, designed by Carol Sarkisian (1936–2013). The dress has a belt that features clunky silver X shapes, and oblong oval buttons in a simple wide pattern repeated along its length. It’s not flashy, but it is stunning in its craftsmanship and simple elegance.
Like all of the clothing included in this exhibit, this piece highlights just how far O’Keeffe was willing to take her style and personal aesthetic. It pervaded her art, jewelry, home and every stitch of the clothing she wore. This is not easy to accomplish. However, unlike many personalities of our present day whose clothing and lifestyles seem unattainable, O’Keeffe’s approach says something very different. Depicted here, her clothes are stating that putting more thought and importance on the value of things made by hand can create a more meaningful existence.
"Georgia O’Keeffe with Painting in the Desert, N.M., 1960" is a photograph by Tony Vaccaro (American, born 1922). In this image she is wearing the Wrap Dress, and either putting a painting onto or taking it off of an easel. The New Mexico landscape is in the background, and O’Keeffe has her hair pulled back and tied up in a small bun. It's an action shot of an artist living her chosen life, a great example of who this person was and her image that endures well past her death.
"Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern" is the type of exhibit you often only get to see after an artist has passed away and different aspects of her life can be researched, studied and intellectualized. Here we get to discover what Mark Cole, the museum’s curator of American painting and sculpture, describes as “an artist who drew no boundaries between the art she made and the life she lived.” It’s a unique and important exhibit.
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