Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 26, 2018
Wanda M. Corn Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern Exh. cat. New York: Prestel, 2017. 320 pp.; 217 color ills.; 112 b/w ills. Hardcover $60.00 (9783791356013)
Brooklyn Museum, March 3–July 23, 2017; Reynolda House Museum of American Art, August 18–November 19, 2017

I do not usually care much about the clothes that artists wear or what their living rooms look like. But after reading Wanda Corn’s new book about Georgia O’Keeffe, I will certainly pay more attention. Previous O’Keeffe scholars have delved deeply into the artist’s personal and professional relationship with Alfred Stieglitz, speculated on her sexuality as expressed in her flower imagery, and dissected her skull paintings. None, however, have so fully detailed the contents of her closet.

Written in conjunction with an innovative exhibition of both her art and her clothes, Corn’s book provides an in-depth study of the importance of the material (pun intended) culture that surrounded O’Keeffe’s work and its presentation to the public.

To a remarkable degree, given the age she lived in and her gender, Georgia O’Keeffe (1887–1986) strove to control the ways in which her distinctive approach to modernism was perceived by the press and public alike. She cared deeply about her clothes, down to the turn of her collar, her headgear, and her hemlines. Corn shows us that the artist dressed differently depending on her audience—casual clothes at home in rural New Mexico, a more calculated look when she was in New York, and “graphic” get-ups when she posed for photographers. She made decisions about her dress depending on whether she was sitting in front of a camera wielded by an East Coast–establishment fashion photographer such as Irving Penn or Cecil Beaton, or came under the more caring eye of Southwest photographers who were her personal friends—Ansel Adams, Todd Webb, John Loengard, or Eliot Porter.

By analyzing, in beautifully detailed photographs, the manner in which O’Keeffe designed and sewed much of her clothing, Corn’s book shows us the links between the visual abstractions of O’Keeffe’s art and her conception of her own body. Certainly those connections were first made visible in the series of photographs that her husband, art impresario Alfred Stieglitz, took of O’Keeffe during the early years of their relationship. However, as Corn demonstrates, O’Keeffe herself was ultimately in control of how she presented herself to the public. Almost always dead serious, elegantly plain, and quietly encapsulated in exquisite detail, O’Keeffe carefully crafted her own look.

Corn’s book is systematically organized to convey O’Keeffe’s quest for identity through both her art and her sense of domestic design. It begins, as it should, with a brief look at how and why the artifacts of O’Keeffe’s life have been archived at the museum that bears her name, and where her early art education and the Arts and Crafts movement coincide. As with other, more traditional studies of O’Keeffe, Corn then turns to the distinction between the artist’s life in New York and New Mexico, placing her emphasis within the framework of the different types of clothing that O’Keeffe wore in each place. It was not until the artist settled in New Mexico and had a place of her own that she expanded the modern aesthetic of her clothing into the realm of interior design. Corn examines the relationship between color in her wardrobe and the landscape of the Southwest; looks at her simple jewelry inspired in part by native American silver and the famous Calder pin with O’Keeffe’s swirling initials; and goes on to describe the modernist details in off-the-rack dresses by designers Claire McCardell and Marimekko in the artist’s closet.

The chapter on New Mexico closes with a look at the two rural homes that O’Keeffe lived in—her summer house at Ghost Ranch and the year-round house and studio at Abiquiu. At the latter, O’Keeffe surrounded herself with simple yet sleek, modern pieces of furniture: an Eames chair, a Barwa lounger, a table by Eero Saarinen, and a chair and matching stool by Harry Bertoia. Two of the most notable features of the sitting room that capture her sense of design are the mobile by Alexander Calder set off against a blank adobe wall and the dark opening of the small fireplace beneath, captured in a photograph by Myron Wood, another of her close New Mexico friends. Black-and-white architectural photographs of O’Keeffe’s homes, such as those by Woods, Loengard, and George Daniell, importantly also served as means of further conveying O’Keeffe’s modernist sensibility to the public. Corn’s book includes examples of her minimalist, color field paintings of the black patio door at Abiquiu that illustrate the relationship between the increasing simplicity of O’Keeffe’s modernism and traditional New Mexican architectural forms.

In the chapter that examines O’Keeffe’s interest in the culture of Asia, Corn pulls together the importance of O’Keeffe’s early studies with Arthur Wesley Dow and later friendship with Frank Lloyd Wright, who shared her love of Japanese prints. But it is O’Keeffe’s kimono collection, bought both at home and abroad, that best marks her sartorial taste for Asian design. On her round-the-world trip in 1959, O’Keeffe not only purchased kimonos, but like many travelers, she also ordered tailor-made clothing based on her favorite Western-made dresses and suits.

In Hong Kong, in addition to fancy silk kimonos, O’Keeffe purchased commonplace cotton work jackets, a pair of wooden geta sandals, and a farmer’s straw hat—and was photographed wearing such items throughout her life. Records at the O’Keeffe archive further itemize the clothing that she bought on the trip, including a silver copy she had made of her brass Calder pin. Making copies of favorite pieces of clothing, in a variety of colors or materials, was her common practice for both off-the-rack and couturier designs.

The final chapter in Corn’s book makes it clear that much of O’Keeffe’s lifelong interest in clothes and interior decor amounted to a veritable publicity campaign for her career as an artist. Her clothes, not only comfortable and well crafted, were chic and modern. From early in her career until the last decade of her life, one popular magazine article after another—in Vanity Fair (1922), Town and Country (1937), Life (1968), Time (1970), and even National Geographic (1980), among others—focused on her fame and her distinctive sense of fashion. First in black-and-white images and later in color, a wide variety of photographers presented the artist as part and parcel of the landscape and the modernist sensibility that surrounded her in New Mexico. As evidence of how famous such images of O’Keeffe became as her celebrity grew, Corn provides us with numerous examples of “homages” paid by other artists late in her life and after her death. Even the celebrity-obsessed Andy Warhol was drawn by O’Keeffe’s fame, publishing a conversation with her in Interview magazine and fashioning a portrait of her in one of his “diamond-dust” works in 1980. At the same time, the fashion world itself was taken with the ninety-year-old artist, as Corn points out, with Calvin Klein and the Japanese couturier Issey Miyake acknowledging her influence. More recently, younger designers have continued to appropriate O’Keeffe images and her sense of fashion in their work. All of this notoriety was engineered by O’Keeffe herself. As Corn observes: “From early on O’Keeffe dedicated herself to a principle she learned from her teacher Dow at Columbia, to erasing the boundaries between the making of art and the living of art. As art historians, we must strive to do the same and study the many worlds in which she—or any other artist—made a mark ” (283).

The value of Corn’s study of O’Keeffe’s clothes and her keen sense of interior design is conveyed not only in her astute analysis of physical objects, but also in the research and design of this publication. Lavishly illustrated in black and white and color, the close-up details emphasize O’Keeffe’s skills as a seamstress and the elegant simplicity of her modernist wardrobe. With images of O’Keeffe paintings and a full range of work by the numerous photographers who made portraits of the artist and her home, readers come away from the book with a well-rounded sense of her personality and style. As the bibliography on O’Keeffe is vast, Corn made a good decision to provide her readers with a useful “Note on Research and Sources” specifically tailored to her writing, in addition to her footnotes. From the perspective of a photography historian, I especially appreciated the appendix section with its chronology of O’Keeffe’s photographers and the references to where those photographs were published. For those who have a particular interest in O’Keeffe’s clothes, the interview with Judy Margolis, who sold many articles of clothing to O’Keeffe over the years, and the data about the garments owned by the artist will be of great assistance. This is an altogether innovative approach to O’Keeffe’s life and her art and a model for other studies about how artists present themselves and their work. 

Susan Danly
Independent Art Historian