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.

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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.”


Knize Inc. Suit (Jacket and Skirt), 1964. Black wool. Bergdorf Goodman. Shirt, c. 1970s. Ivory polyester knit. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; Gift of Juan and Anna Marie Hamilton, 2000.03.0385a, 2000.03.0381, and 2000.03.0296. (Photo © Gavin Ashworth)

A longtime professor at Stanford University, Corn is the first American art scholar to study the expansive wardrobe that O’Keeffe kept in her closets until her death in 1986. She suspected the exercise might reveal a deeper understanding of an artist everyone thought they knew pretty well. She was right.


Wanda M. Corn. Photo by Tim Hout.

Corn worked closely with Austen Barron Bailly, The George Putnam Curator of American Art, and Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, The James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Deputy Director, to bring Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style to PEM. We recently caught up with our guest curator in her Cape Cod home to talk about her newfound appreciation for an artist she had long admired.

Q: What was the premise of this project?

A: For me, it was a case study of looking at the material culture the artist had left behind and asking what we can learn from it. Georgia O’Keeffe kept not only many of her clothes but two beautiful adobe homes she had helped design and furnish. I asked myself what relationship her clothes, home decorating and lifestyle might have to her art making. It was a radical idea to consider her domesticity worthy of study and fraught from a feminist’s point of view. I worried that it might seem that I were over-feminizing O’Keeffe or taking on some frivolous exercise. I worked very hard to show the variety of ways clothes mattered in understanding this artist and her aesthetic. I’m relieved that people who have written about this exhibition have not puzzled over whether it was worth doing. When I’m asked if I would do a similar study of a male artist, I always say yes. Imagine what we might learn if we were so lucky to have the wardrobes of say James McNeill Whistler or Oscar Wilde or Andy Warhol.

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.

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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

Q: Would O’Keeffe have embraced Instagram and other social media people are using to create their brand?

A: I am not sure what she would have thought to see photographs of her clothes everywhere online. She probably would have been appalled. Even though she did everything in a distinctive style, she always wanted to be known for her art first and foremost. When she became a celebrity, she felt overwhelmed getting so much fan mail and having people showing up unannounced at her gate. She didn’t like the inconveniences of so much attention and she got a little vocal about it. I think she would find Instagram to be distasteful, if you will, because Instagram is not about great images and she wanted to be a part of a world of great photographers. From her perspective, the phone as camera would be too democratic an art form.

Q: What was it like to work with PEM on this show?

A: I have loved every minute of it because PEM has a very distinctive way of making an exhibition fill their spaces and mission. The museum put together a team of staff members and each brought a different skill to the table. Everyone is goal-oriented and wants the same thing: to make the stories we are telling about O’Keeffe as clear and concise as possible. After each session, I think we left energized by the collaborative process. The creativity of staff and leadership at PEM is remarkable.

Q: What do you hope people think about as they leave the exhibition?

A: This is the third venue of the exhibition and thanks to social media, where hundreds of people have posted, I know something of what they are thinking. One thing people have admired is the fact that nothing was too small of a detail in Georgia O’Keeffe’s world. I think people admire how she was a very consistent and elegant choreographer of her life. While the exhibition was at the Brooklyn Museum, one woman came up to me because she knew I was the curator. She said that all her life she only wanted to wear what she could create. She made all her own clothes and hats, but she always felt like an outsider. She said that what she found at this exhibition was validation of her own way of life and that made her feel like she had found a soul mate.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style is on view through April 1, 2018.

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