Friday, March 30, 2018

How To Diminish a Woman Artist? Focus on Her Clothes

It’s a good thing Georgia O’Keeffe’s ashes are scattered over The Pedernal Mountains of New Mexico, because if she were buried I’m pretty sure she would be spinning at a high velocity in her grave. Why? The W Magazine of a show about her that has been making the rounds. 

From the exhibition: Laura Gilpin (American, 1891–1979),  Georgia O’Keeffe, 1953
Gelatin silver print. The Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Fort Worth, Texas. Bequest of the artist, P1979.130.6. ©1979 Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern began at the Brooklyn Museum last year, guest curated by Wanda M. Corn, and has traveled to the Peabody Essex Museum, in Salem, Massachusetts, where it was given the name, Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style. I skipped it when it was in Brooklyn because I was pretty sure I would be as pissed off by the show as I was annoyed by the concept. (What’s worse, the exhibition was part of A Year of Yes: Reimagining Feminism at the Brooklyn Museum, because nothing says “feminism” like like focusing on a woman’s appearance, eh?)

But the PEM is on my walking route when I’m in Salem, and as a Salem resident I get in for free, so I stopped in. I was right. What a way to diminish the artistic achievements of a woman artist: Feature her clothes and accessories! There are pitifully few big solo museums shows given to women artists, so this show feels like a mockery of their, our, struggles and achievements. O’Keeffe’s achievements in her time were formidable, and her paintings remain iconic, but let’s examine her shoes. Uh, no.

I am a regular visitor to both museums. The Brooklyn Museum houses the Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art—a unique opportunity to examine art from a feminist perspective—where it houses Judy Chicago’s iconic The Dinner Party on permanent exhibition. The Peabody Essex Museum has grown from a sleepy venue–which featured the odd combination of Native American arts and artifacts along with objects from Salem’s 18th century China trade—into a first-class contemporary art museum that has broadened its scope and holdings while retaining a bit of the quirkiness that brought it into being.

To be fair, O’Keeffe did have a distinct personal style, as seen in the splendid photographs of her, taken by Laura Gilpin, Philippe Halsman, Arnold Newman, Alfred Stieglitz, and others. But building an exhibition around how a woman artist dressed while displaying her paintings as a backdrop to the fashion is, frankly, sexist and insulting. (The New Yorker liked the show; so did Roberta Smith in The New York Times, though she writes, "
A problem is that the show runs out of paintings before it runs out of clothes and photographs"; The New Republic took a more circumspect look at O’Keeffe’s art and style.)

What’s next: Matisse and his Home Décor? Ad Reinhardt: Monochromatic Fashion Icon? Julian Schnabel: A Man and his Pajamas?  No, because male artists are defined by their paintings. Even Kehinde Wiley, the most sartorially expressive artist working today, is defined by his work. In GQ's long 2013 feature on him, How Kehinde Wiley Makes a Masterpiece, exactly one paragraph was devoted to his clothing.

The museum world can do better than what it has done for women. 

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