WHO? American ‘Modernist’ painter and feminist icon
Much is talked around O’Keeffe’s style, artistically of course rather than sartorially. I was first introduced to her, like so many I’m sure in art class. Her modernist magnified flowers and deserted landscapes were a must-paint on the curriculum and for me O’Keeffe was the first standout female painter in an industry and syllabus full of white male artists. Her widely debated and personally denied feminist agenda depicting female sexuality through nature was incredibly exciting after painting Cezanne’s apple after apple.
It wasn’t until visiting her retrospective at the Tate Modern I discovered O’Keeffe’s style beyond her paintings, which like her landscapes captured the raw American wilderness, only this time through utilitarian tailoring, monochrome menswear and Native American accessories. O’Keeffe’s husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, 23 years her senior documented her over the years in their many locations across America, from the Texan plains to the deserts of New Mexico. I had previously studied her brush strokes with strict attention but it was her style, captured in these images that I was able to learn more about Georgia.
Reading her anti-establishment arguments on the views of patriarchal critics pigeon-holing her work followed by images of her in simple shirts and jeans. It was clear in her work and her dress that O’Keeffe knew exactly who she was and who she wanted to be.Her style is simple and masculine. Sharp tailored smocks, kimono style sleeves, classic straight cut denim with naturally native, folk feel in a truly American ‘modernist’ way. Wide lapel open collar shirts have an almost poetic simplicity along with long wrapped smocks overlaid with a Native American belt.
Portraits in her later life provide a rich contrast in glorious Technicolor and show O’Keeffe continuing to triumph American utility in denim, calico and western-style shirts with the incredible backdrop of Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.I find the way creatives dress fascinating. An artist expresses their emotions through their medium, paint on a canvas or the thrash of a three chord progression and we see this sartorially too whether it’s Frida Kahlo’s folk dress telling us her fierce protection of Mexican heritage or Sid Vicious’ leather jacket noting his disdain for conforming society.
As a woman who spent her lifetime pushing against the gender bias in the art world, and both refusing to entertain the outrageous styles of the flapper girls and conform to the subordinate glamour of the 30s, 40s and 50s in favour for keeping her style true, just like her art.
“The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters”.