I don’t know when it started. I’ve idealized Gerogia O’Keefe as a painter and style icon for many years. A poster of Sky Above Clouds IV (1965) graced the walls of my apartment way back when. I have often wished my wardrobe was limited to O’Keefe’s black and white: it was hard to resist attending a lecture at the Arts Students League: Georgia O’Keefe’s Closets: Clothes, Style, and Dressing Modern given by Wanda Corn, the curator of Georgia O’Keefe: Living Modern, the exhibition opening at the Brooklyn Museum on March 3rd.
Corn began with a photograph of O’Keefe in high school: A bunch of girls with curls and bows in their hair and frilly dresses lined up in a row. One girl stands out. Her hair is pulled back severely and her dress is decidedly unadorned. Even before O’Keefe became famous, both for her art and her look, O’Keefe resisted the stereotype of her age. “The most unusual thing about her was the plainness of her attire.” said a high school friend. She eschewed traditional femininity. She never wore make-up and surprisingly was a couture-like seamstress. She was able to make her own clothes, which enabled her not to depend on current fashion.
Who really created the image of O’Keefe that has become so ubiquitous? Alfred Stieglitz offered O’Keefe a kind of fellowship (Corn’s characterization) to come to New York. Stieglitz supported O’Keefe, set her up in an apartment, lived with her, eventually received a divorce from his wife and finally married O’Keefe. Stieglitz made 330 photographs of O’Keefe between 1917-1937. Carefully composed and conscious of her desire to resist the traditional femininity, Stieglitz as much as O’Keefe, was responsible for creating her look. Draped in black, these portraits confused traditional boundaries between female and male. O’Keefe was a gender bender.
Through these photographs, Stieglitz launched O’Keefe’s incarnation as a mystic artist. She stood outside the everyday. According to Corn, Stieglitz engineered O’Keefe’s persona. The photograph was a powerful tool for her artistic identity. I imagine you could point out O’Keefe on the street from a mile away.
The second half of Corn’s lecture concentrated on the years O’Keefe lived in New Mexico. Her life as an artist of the American West. Stilled wrapped in black, with a zen-like look, O’Keefe continued her journey with dress. Her style was monolithic, simple, easy and practical.
Corn told a fantastic story about the Alexander Calder pin pictured in the above photograph. The pin that Calder made for O’Keefe was brass. When O’Keefe’s hair went gray, she decided the golden-color of the pin was not appropriate. On a trip to India, she asked a silversmith to copy the pin in silver. She proudly told interviewers and friends that she paid $5 for the copy and wore it often.
Corn suggested that O’Keefe’s body was her canvas. This is undoubtedly true. I am now working on pairing down my own closet, although I know, I probably will never be able to reduce my choices to black, black, black, black and a little bit of white.
Georgia O’Keefe’s Closets: Clothes, Style and Dressing Modern
The Art Students League of New York
February 21, 2017
Curator and writer Wanda M. Corn will present a lecture related to her upcoming exhibition Georgia O’Keefe: Living Modern at the Brooklyn Museum (March 3 – July 23, 2017).
This exhibition has timed tickets. Because of popular demand, the early-bird discount has been extended through February 28. Members see it for free (no advance registration needed). IDNYC members get discounted admission.