Georgia O’Keefe, Ram’s Head, Blue Morning Glory, 1938, oil on canvas, 50.8 x 76.2cm, Georgia O’Keefe Museum/Gift of the Burnett Foundation 
Credit: © Georgia O’Keefe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe is never far from fashion. The painter, considered by many to be one of the most significant of the 20th century, famously wore a uniform of loose-fitting garments in a largely black and white palette from the moment she could self-style: kimonos were worn layered over embroidered ivory blouses; austere suits were made to order and faithfully repaired by the artist, an expert seamstress; striking V-shaped necklines elongated her neck, her face unfailingly framed with some combination of a black vaquero hat, a brass brooch inspired by her initials and made for her by the sculptor Alexander Calder or a silk head scarf that concealed a shock of silver hair in her later years (she died at the age of 98).

In life as in death, hers is an enduring style that relied on a kind of formula, and yet was anything but formulaic.

Last month, when Dior decamped to the desert hills of Calabasas, Maria Grazia Chiuri showed a Cruise collection of similar tunics, kimonos and wrap coats, many in black and all belted at the waist, worn unfailingly with a vaquero hat. As recently as two weeks ago, retailers turned Kenzo designers Carol Lim and Humberto Leon, this time in their capacity as the creative directors of Opening Ceremony, staged a Fall 2017 show in homage to the O’Keeffe retrospective that will next month conclude at the Brooklyn Museum, an exhibition which celebrates not only her art but key pieces from that much-cited and celebrated wardrobe.

In 1927, O’Keeffe had her first major solo exhibition at the same museum, organised by her partner of twenty years and her first great champion, the gallerist and photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Now 90 years later, that exhibition dovetails with Making Modernism, the largest ever survey of her work shown in Australia opening tomorrow at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Much like the artist’s formidable style, the exhibition succeeds thanks to another kind of winning formula – one that places O’Keeffe’s work in direct conversation with that of two pioneering Australian modernists, the painters Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith.

At left, Grace Cossington Smith, The bridge in building, 1929, oil on pulpboard, 75 x 53 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Gift of Ellen Waugh 2005; and right, Margaret Preston, Implement blue, 1927, oil on canvas on hardboard, 42.5 x 43 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Gift of the artist 1960, © Margaret Rose Preston Estate
Credit: © Estate of Grace Cossington Smith/AGNSW/Jenni Carter

O’Keefe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism, brings O’Keeffe together with two of her contemporaries for the first time in an attempt to understand modernism as an international phenomenon with local expressions around the world, each devoted to making sense of and coming to terms with the modern era. The combination of O’Keeffe, Preston and Cossington Smith (none of whom ever met, though they did unknowingly share a reading list) was an unwitting one; or, as Dr Cody Hartley, the senior director of collections and interpretation at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe with whom the exhibition has been staged in collaboration, put it lightly, “a happy accident”.

Despite their ostensible differences – and there are many – what unites all three artists is a tendency shared by each to turn their backs on tradition – particularly those belonging to European ideals of representation – and create their own in sync with the conditions of the 20th century. Witnessed in the 30-plus contributions of each artist to the exhibition is a desire to create something culturally relevant to the complexities of their life and times; and while they do not share aesthetic sensibilities, each work is underpinned by a shared drive to depict with intimacy the vastness of their world.

Many of the works, largely landscapes and still lifes, are deeply in the natural world but move beyond it through the artists’ own interpretation of abstraction by way of colour and composition. In Implement blue, Preston brings an unexpected sense of life and brightness to scene of ordinary domesticity that’s made transcendent through a distortion of colour and composition. Likewise, in Cossington Smith’s studies of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in construction and her suburban North Shore garden alike, painterly, repetitious brush strokes imbue her vision of the world with a radiance and an energy not normally associated with either the North Shore or painstakingly slow large-scale construction works. Given the familiarity of Sydney-based Preston and Cossington-Smith’s landscapes and the alien topographies of New Mexico in which O’Keefe worked, the results are fascinating and often border on deeply moving. The latter works in particular verge on hypnotic, as O’Keeffe intensifies the colour and contour of the landscapes she fell in love with to bring the unseen into sharp relief.

Anchored by the unprecedented opportunity to witness firsthand a collection of O’Keeffe’s work on such a scale, Making Modernism is a fascinating introduction to the work of three radical women who, though they would never cross paths, were alive with the same spirit and desire to capture a world beyond their own.

O’Keefe, Preston, Cossington Smith: Making Modernism will exhibit at the Art Gallery of New South Wales from July 1 until October 2. You can find out more information here.

Tile image: As above, © Georgia O’Keefe Museum
Cover image: Georgia O’Keefe, Storm Cloud, Lake George, 1923, oil on canvas, 45.7 x 76.5cm, © Georgia O’Keefe Museum, Gift of the Burnett Foundation