Connected \\ December 6, 2017

Georgia O'Keeffe: art, image, style

Georgia O’Keeffe’s independent streak started early. Her high school yearbook described her this way: “A girl who would be different in habit, style and dress. A girl who doesn’t give a cent for men and boys still less.”

A class photo seems to further this reputation as a woman determined to do things her way. Unlike her peers with a penchant for puffiness, O’Keeffe poses in a dress with fitted sleeves and cuffs. Her hair is pulled straight back into a long ponytail instead of the trendy high pompadour with a big floppy bow.

With exacting detail and fierce intensity, Georgia O’Keeffe controlled how the world would see her.

Every aspect of her life was consciously, aesthetically driven — from the clothes she wore, to the way she addressed a letter, to the objects she placed on her mantle, and, of course, to the compositions of her paintings
—Austen Barron Bailly, PEM’s George Putnam Curator of American Art

“For more than 70 years, Georgia O’Keeffe shaped her public persona, defied labels and lived life on her terms so that she could make the art she felt she was called to make.”

Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style, which opens December 16 at PEM, offers a radically new way to consider an artist we think we know from her iconic paintings of flowers and Southwestern landscapes. Through 125 works, the exhibition expands our understanding of O'Keeffe by presenting her wardrobe — for the first time — alongside photographs and paintings.

The exhibition is organized in sections that run from her early years, when O’Keeffe crafted a signature style of dress that dispensed with ornamentation; to her years in New York, in the 1920s and 1930s, when a black-and-white palette dominated much of her art and dress; and to her later years in New Mexico, where her art and clothing changed in response to the surrounding colors of the Southwestern landscape, right up until her death in 1986.

“We are able to explore Georgia O’Keeffe and her art though the lens of her self-fashioning and her self-presentation, which has never been done in an exhibition before,” said Bailly, the exhibition coordinating curator. “We can recognize that her clothes and the way she dressed were their own authentic form of artistic expression.”

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Emilio Pucci, Chute dress, about 1954. Black and white cotton. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; Gift of Juan and Anna Marie Hamilton, 2000.03.0614. Photo © Gavin Ashworth.

In addition to select paintings and items of clothing, the exhibition presents photographs of O’Keeffe and her homes by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, and many others, including Ansel Adams, Andy Warhol, Bruce Weber and Todd Webb. These widely publicized photographs further reveal how she shaped and controlled her image even as these different artists interpreted her over time. 

The show was organized by the Brooklyn Museum and curated by Wanda M. Corn, an esteemed American art scholar of Stanford University who now calls Cape Cod home. Bailly called the chance to work with Corn a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” 

Before working on the exhibition, Bailly said she had no idea that O’Keeffe made many of her own clothes. In fact, the renowned modernist artist was a gifted seamstress who, not surprisingly, favored simple lines, minimal ornamentation and organic forms. 

Through the curated groupings of works on view in the gallery, relationships between the sharp, precise edges in her paintings and the tiny, exquisitely rendered pintucks in her garments become apparent. The V-shape in her favored style of neckline turns up, again and again, in her abstract compositions.

Georgia O'Keeffe, In the Patio IX, 1950. Oil on panel. Collection of Jan T. and Marica Vilcek, promised gift to the Vilcek Foundation.


Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, Prospect Mountain, Lake George, 1927. Gelatin silver print. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Alfred Stieglitz Collection, 1980.70.223. © Board of Trustees, National Gallery of Art, Washington.

“When you see how exquisitely she crafted linen tunics or silk blouses, you are going to be blown away,” Bailly said. “There is such understated simplicity and elegance to her designs, plus the beauty of the fabrics, the tiny little feminine details under a kind of androgynous guise. And you start to see similarities between the aesthetics of her clothes and her paintings. Without opening up her closet, you never would sense that her whole life was a work of art.”

Today, social media makes it easy to curate one’s own public image. Scroll through your Instagram feed and you’re likely to encounter friends skilled at projecting their self-identified brand. Georgia O’Keeffe was decades ahead of everyone. Every aspect of her life was driven by her unified aesthetic vision.

“I think people are really captivated by the fact that she maintained such  a strikingly coherent style throughout her long life, thanks to what Wanda Corn calls her ‘iron discipline,’” said Bailly. “Her ability to achieve creative and aesthetic excellence according to her vision in every aspect of her life far eclipsed her peers, and her remarkable personal style continues to inspire.”

PHOTO AT TOP: Bruce Weber, Georgia O’Keeffe, Abiquiu, N.M. (detail), 1984. Gelatin silver print. Bruce Weber and Nan Bush Collection, New York. © Bruce Weber.

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