For years, artist Georgia O’Keeffe has been a hero of mine. Fiercely independent and courageous, a setter of trends in art and lifestyle, O’Keeffe was a genuine maker.
So when the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts became the last stop on the national tour of Georgia O’Keeffe: Art, Image and Style, I scheduled a visit, and learned that we’d be seeing not only her artwork and photographs of her, but also her clothing.
Now more than 30 years after her death, her wardrobe of capes and dresses, and famous gaucho hats still exists, and actively inspires young millennial designers and photographers as they create a whole new language of style for today. And the importance of O’Keeffe’s wardrobe is just one hint of her complexity and originality.
O’Keeffe’s marriage to New York photographer Alfred Steiglitz is another. He was 23 years her senior, and his management of her career made her a fortune in painting sales. Thus established, she left him for New Mexico, returning annually to deliver paintings and renew their relationship, for the rest of his life.
Looking back on O’Keeffe and Steiglitz through a 21st century lens, it might be easy to trivialize their union were it not for the evidence of what they produced. While their talents were uniquely their own, together they were a force that moved the art world toward what we today call Modernism, abstraction and the Art of Photography.
Steiglitz’s photographs of O’Keeffe re-defined intimacy in the 20th century, and forever changed the way people viewed each other through a camera lens – while in O’Keeffe’s monumental paintings of flowers, subtle gradations of color flow into each other like a whisper, silky and soft, more subtle and supple than any reproductions or jpegs can render.
The O’Keeffe and Stiglitz collaboration - however explosive and unconventional - rose above self-interest to enable their respective geniuses to flourish.
Thus it might be said that Georgia O’Keeffe created herself. Every aspect of her life was fueled by her aesthetic vision and maintained by her iron discipline – even though she once admitted: “I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life - and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do.”
At a time when women are taking another giant step in self-determination, that definition of courage isn’t a bad lesson to take to heart.