While Stieglitz clearly put his art-dealer savvy and artistic know-how to use in the service of helping to build his wife’s career, “he had very little to do with the way she dressed, aside from giving her a cape,” says Corn.
When it came to the perception of her work, however, he was deeply influential. Many blame him for the sexualized, feminine associations that so many people relate to her art. “He was very influential on critics in the ’20s and ’30s,” says Corn, “and he really was the instigator of this whole notion that she is ‘painting out of her womb,’ as he liked to say.”
O’Keeffe strove to collapse that myth, particularly when she turned from painting the lush flora of Lake George, where Stieglitz’s family had a compound, to capturing the abstract potential of animal bones and rugged desert vistas in New Mexico, where she eventually moved after Stieglitz’s death in 1946.
But even as her paintings evolved and her imagery shifted, O’Keeffe’s public persona remained astoundingly consistent, as Corn details in the catalogue that accompanies the show. Long before she met Stieglitz, when she was teaching art in West Texas, or studying at the Art Students League in New York, a sense of elegant, unlabored efficiency permeated every aspect of her style and approach to life.
This can be seen in everything from the simple way she wore her hair and her sparse modernist interiors (with
chairs and a Calder mobile), to the way she ran her New Mexico households, where she oversaw extensive organic gardens and ongoing architectural renovations.
“She came out of the Arts and Crafts setting,” says Corn, referring to the early 20th-century movement that strove for a holistic, natural aesthetic in the face of dehumanizing Victorian fustiness and industrialization. “She was taught that everything you are doing—placing a stamp on an envelope, putting on your tie—everything should be done with a sense of style and beauty.”
She was also heavily influenced by early American modernist
, with whom she studied at Columbia University, and who emphasized that same holism. “Good design determined beauty in fine art, he argued, but was also a universal yardstick widely applied in making furniture, decorating a room, arranging a mantelpiece, or determining what to wear,” writes Corn in the catalogue.
And like Dow, O’Keeffe was drawn to the minimalist, meditative tendencies of Asian culture, and she went to great efforts to acquire beautiful kimonos from Japan, several of which are on view here.