Georgia O’Keeffe as artist, model, and designer at Peabody Essex Museum

Shelley A. Sackett

DECEMBER 28, 2017 – SALEM – Few people outside academia realize that Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), the iconic artist famous for paintings of enlarged flowers and New Mexico landscapes, was an accomplished seamstress who lavished as much creative juice on her self-presentation as on her work. With the opening of its multi-disciplinary exhibition, “Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style,” the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem opens the door to her closet.

O’Keeffe’s paintings are presented alongside her never before exhibited handmade garments and dozens of images of the artist taken by photographers, including her Jewish husband, Alfred Stieglitz. The show, first curated at the Brooklyn Museum by art historian Wanda M. Corn, is the first to explore how the renowned artist deliberately and adeptly shaped her public image and myth, creating her own celebrity fame.

The 125 works expand our understanding of O’Keeffe while underscoring her fierce determination to be in charge of how the world understood her identity and artistic values. The powerful public persona she created through her clothes and the way she posed for the camera unequivocally proclaimed her independence and modern, progressive lifestyle.

“O’Keeffe drew no line between the art she made and the life she lived,” Corn said. “She strove to make her life a complete work of art, each piece contributing to an aesthetic whole.”

Corn discovered O’Keeffe’s cache during a 1980 cross-country stopover in New Mexico on her way to Stanford University, where she taught art history. She visited O’Keeffe’s homes in the Southwest state at Ghost Ranch and Abiquiú, finding closets full of the artist’s clothing preserved in beautiful condition. Because most were without labels, she had to guess which ones the artist created and which she bought. Corn said if she could sit down with O’Keeffe, “My first question would be, ‘Was I right in my attributions?’”

Most of the clothes and desert artifacts now belong to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, founded the year of her death in 1986.

The provocative photographs by Stieglitz (1864-1946) dominate the exhibition’s walls at the Peabody Essex. It’s hard to imagine the different path O’Keeffe’s life might have taken had she not caught his eye in 1916, when he was 52, married, and a world-famous photographer based in New York and she was 28 and still unknown.

Instantly infatuated with O’Keeffe and her art, the son of German-Jewish immigrants wooed and won her. She moved to New York and soon, he began taking nude photographs of her, one of which hangs beside an O’Keeffe painting at the Peabody Essex exhibit. The two married in 1924. For years, Stieglitz photographed O’Keeffe obsessively, teaching her how to pose and helping make her the most photographed artist of the 20th century.

In 1927, O’Keeffe visited New Mexico and fell in love with the desert landscape. Her art and clothing would change in response to it. She lived there part of the year from 1929 on, moving there permanently after Stieglitz’s death in 1946. The younger generation of photographers who visited her in New Mexico cemented her status as a pioneer of modernism and a contemporary style icon.

Sprinkled throughout the rooms of paintings, paired clothing, and photographs at the Peabody Essex exhibit are small screen films, including fascinating home movies of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz in New York and a one-minute 1977 video portrait, the only such interview the artist granted.

One standout in the exhibition’s predominantly black and ivory palette is an orange Andy Warhol diamond-dusted print that introduces the idea of “Saint Georgia,” showing a meditative, mystical, Mother Theresa-like O’Keeffe. Another is a video of the House of Dior’s 2018 O’Keeffe-inspired cruise collection that features her signature gaucho hat.

“O’Keeffe’s aesthetic legacy of organic silhouettes, minimal ornamentation, and restrained color palettes continues to capture the popular imagination and inspire leading designers and tastemakers of today,” said Austen Barron Bailly, organizing PEM curator.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image, Style” runs through April 1 at the Peabody Essex Museum, East India Square, 161 Essex St., Salem. For more information, call 978-745-9500 visit pem.org.

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