Connected \\ December 20, 2017
Unpacking Georgia O’Keeffe
In 2001, Wanda Corn traveled to Santa Fe to give a lecture about modern artists with distinctive styles of dress — i.e., people who became publicly known for what they looked like as well as for their art. Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, were among them.
Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864–1946). Georgia O’Keeffe, circa 1920–22. Gelatin silver print, 41⁄2 x 31⁄2 in. (11.4 x 9 cm). Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe, N.M.; Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation, 2003.01.006. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
After the talk, the curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum rushed up to tell Corn that O’Keeffe’s closets in her two homes were filled with clothes. The garments, some of them very old, were being transferred to the museum for cataloging. “I had never heard of an archive of artist clothes and I was shocked to think that I might be able to work with an actual wardrobe, not just photographs of the artist,” said Corn. “That was the beginning.”
Eight Wrap Dresses. Left to right: Black cotton, c. 1960s–70s; White cotton, Carol Sarkisian, c. 1970s; Blue-gray cotton, c. 1960s; Pink cotton, Neiman Marcus, c. late 1950s; Blue cotton, Neiman Marcus, c. late 1950s; Brown cotton, Sidran, Inc., c. late 1950s; Green synthetic velvet, Carol Sarkisian, c. 1970s; Black cotton, c. 1960s–70s. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 2000.03.0602, 2000.03.0410, 2000.03.0411, 2000.03.0398, 2000.03.0394, 2000.03.0419, 2000.03.0357, and 2000.03.0601. (Photo © Gavin Ashworth)
Q: I read where you were quoted saying, “This approach produced an O’Keeffe we did not know.” What did you learn?
A: The No. 1 thing we learned is that Georgia O’Keeffe made little differentiation between designing her art and designing her life. And designing her life included the way she presented herself in public and the way she courted photographers once she learned that she was a very attractive model and that her image made for good copy in magazines and newspapers. She not only had a heavy hand in shaping her everyday existence but also the trajectory of her life as an artist and a human being.
Q: It sounds exhausting to create a unified aesthetic in every aspect of your life. What if someone gives you a present you don’t like?
A: I think you are absolutely right. Disciplined is the word I have used for O’Keeffe, and I have often thought how undisciplined I am compared to her. For instance, you go through her entire house and there is not one photograph of a family member or friend. There is no evidence in each room of what has happened there. It is all set up to be a stunning space rendered in a modern aesthetic. When she was given things that did not suit her fine-tuned tastes, she either gave them away or hid them in a closet.
Attributed to Georgia O’Keeffe. Blouse, circa early to mid-1930s. White linen. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; Gift of Juan and Anna Marie Hamilton, 2000.03.0248. (Photo © Gavin Ashworth)
Q: Is there a common misconception about O’Keeffe you would like to correct?
A: I don’t think that I was mending or revising anything in particular. To get an enlarged O’Keeffe was always my mission. No one had thought deeply about her as a designer of her life. I don’t think I know many people who have the determination and discipline she had. My understanding of the artist is more layered and rich than what I started with earlier. I wish I could sit down and talk with her about it; I’d ask her how she managed to do it all.
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