SALEM — Georgia O’Keeffe, whose aesthetics rippled out from the canvas into her wardrobe and home, was the most photographed artist of the 20th century. “Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style,” at the Peabody Essex Museum, is a broad, remarkable examination of the magnetic effect of O’Keeffe’s taste and persona.
Wanda M. Corn, professor emerita in art history at Stanford, first curated the show at the Brooklyn Museum, where it was called “Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern,” a less fine-tuned title. It’s in Salem through April 1.
The exhibition focuses three lenses on O’Keeffe: as artist, as model, and as designer. Her paintings smolder; their lean compositions evoke the archetypal. As a photographer’s model, first for her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, she was a screen for a patriarchal society’s giddy projections about unfathomable womanhood, in terms of sexual desire, art, and spirituality. Her pragmatic, modern style in clothing and home décor continues to inspire designers.
The woman was iconic, and this show breaks down just how. But because she was an icon — and she knew it — she composed herself as carefully as she composed her art. The show is a kaleidoscope of surfaces. The paintings drop down into something deeper, but there are not enough of them. Fascinating and ambitious as “Art, Image, Style” is, it conveys an inscrutable figure – a mystique more than a person.
Stieglitz launched her branding campaign. The photographer and maven of modernism saw her drawings before he met her.
In 1915, during a teaching stint in South Carolina, she sent a sheaf of charcoal abstractions to her friend Anita Pollitzer, in New York. A 1916 series of blue watercolors here, soft loops bobbing over slashes, reveals her clean sense of form and high-octane color. Pollitzer took the drawings straight to Stieglitz.
“Finally, a woman on paper,” he declared. He deemed modern artists priests, and here was a priestess. He put up a show at his gallery, 291. She moved to New York, and soon they were living together.
Thanks to Stieglitz’s canny marketing, O’Keeffe and her paintings became emblems of female sexuality. Fifty years later, feminist artists such as Judy Chicago laid claim to her in the same way — as the lodestone of female desire, self-expression, and artistic autonomy. Gloria Steinem appeared at her New Mexico doorway bearing roses. O’Keeffe turned her away.
The flowers she painted are not symbols for vaginas, it turns out. Sometimes a flower is just a flower. The animal skulls do not represent death — at least to her. O’Keeffe was out to explore space, form, and color, not spin Freudian fantasies. She was an acolyte of Arthur Wesley Dow, who taught his art students to focus on design and lauded the simplicities of Japanese art. A striking section of the show devoted to Asian influences includes several of O’Keeffe’s kimonos hung like boxy crosses, which recall her looming “Black Cross” paintings. Unfortunately, there isn’t one in the show.
Dow was a proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, which aimed to pare Victorian clutter from art, architecture, décor, and more; elements of design could flow from the lines of a house to the wall hangings and tea sets.
“I like to have things as sparse as possible,” O’Keeffe told the writer Calvin Tomkins in a 1974 New Yorker profile. “If you have an empty wall, you can think on it better. I like a space to think in — if you can call what I do thinking.” She brought that attitude to everything she did.
Her personal style was unaffected but striking, and the show adroitly cinches painting with fashion. Her 1930 canvas “Jack in the Pulpit No. 3,” with ruffling verticals veining the blossom, hangs near dresses subtly tailored with continuous vertical pleats. A white summer blouse, likely O’Keeffe’s own handiwork, fitted with fine pin tucks that run the length of the garment, features a flared, leaf-like ornament at the neck that echoes the fluid clarity of her painted flowers.
She preferred clean lines and V-necks, and she almost always posed in black, white, or a combination. Stieglitz liked to photograph her in that uniform from below. In 1927, he posed her with a walking stick at Lake George, their summer retreat, with her face in profile. She looks monumental.
Stieglitz died in 1946. O’Keeffe moved permanently to New Mexico, where she was most at home painting. “Out here, half your work is done for you,” she told Tomkins. She’d been summering there for years, painting the bold, fluted forms and burning reds of that landscape in works such as “The Mountain, New Mexico.”
A cavalcade of photographers came in Stieglitz’s wake, working with O’Keeffe to craft an image related to the one he had devised. She was already in her 60s when she moved, in 1949, so the mysteries of feminine desire were exchanged for the enigmatic spirituality of a woman elder – the desert sage.
O’Keeffe preferred not to be photographed smiling. She tied her hair in a scarf and donned a gaucho hat (simpler – more modernist – than a Stetson). She has, in photographs by Todd Webb, Tony Vaccaro, Laura Gilpin, and more, a riveting, grounded presence. She’s no longer monumental, but her small frame often anchors the sweeping landscape.
Vaccaro’s rare color photo poses her outdoors with one of her pelvis paintings. The yellow hole in the pelvis encircles her, and its curves mirror that of the hill beyond. This seems the perfect portrait of the artist, framed by the mystical place of her imagination and the landscape that inspired it.
Then, there’s an earlier image of O’Keeffe with Orville Cox, head wrangler at Ghost Ranch, where O’Keeffe had a home on the rim of Canyon de Chelly. Her friend Ansel Adams snapped it. She’s smiling here, giving Cox a wily glance as he gazes downward, with a great Southwestern sky behind them.
She’s not an icon in the Adams photo, not an artist but a good ol’ girl and a bit of a goof. Amid the seriousness of painting, modernism, and a century of mythologizing her, that is a relief.
GEORGIA O’KEEFFE: ART, IMAGE, STYLE
At Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, 161 Essex St., Salem, through April 1. 978-745-9500, www.pem.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.