Selling the Myth of Georgia O’Keeffe

How the artist made her image and how it slipped away from her

“O’K” brooch by Alexander Calder, handcrafted for O’Keeffe. Photo: Destiny Montague.

“To create one’s world in any of the arts takes courage.” The Internet attributes these much-disseminated and little-sourced words to Georgia O’Keeffe. Whether or not she ever wrote or uttered them, they perfectly capture the popular myth of O’Keeffe as a frontier modernist who lived her art.

Georgia O’Keeffe: Living Modern, which closed in July after a celebrated run at the Brooklyn Museum, explored that hoary old myth, with a special study of the way O’Keeffe used her wardrobe to shape her world. Most critics noted the exhibit’s focus on self-styling. To the New York Times, it revealed the artist as the “Stylist and Curator of Her Own Myth.” The New Republic posed it as a question of personal branding, “how one of the last century’s most gifted artists constructed one of the last century’s most enduring personas.”

But the show’s keenest insight wasn’t just about public identity formation. It was about the steep price American capitalist society exacts of successfully formed public identities.

I visited Living Modern with the women in my life: my mom, twin sisters, and partner. This felt appropriate, since it was my mom who instilled me with my abiding respect for the artist and her persona. Yes, I remember looking with her at the vibrant abstractions of O’Keeffe’s flowers and terrains. But here’s what I remember better: When I was a tender 13-year-old, my mom gave me a book of Alfred Stieglitz’s intimate photos of O’Keeffe, which I pawed through with secret and terrible fascination. Her mysterious gaze resisted my adolescent male one. Her dark clothes appeared as a strange costume. The Brillo pad of her pubic hair shocked me. So this was the artist revealed! I think what alarmed me about O’Keeffe, and what attracted my mom to her, was the vision of an impervious woman.

Living Modern tracked her road to perviousness, which is to say her road to celebrity. The exhibit abounded with images of the artist revealed, so much so that reviewers noted a dearth of her actual paintings. Stieglitz was her husband and hype-man, and his photos dominated the early years. These might have felt like a tired, gendered display if it weren’t so clear that O’Keeffe had co-conspired to create them. Many focused on that naked, knowing stare that formed her public image and disarmed me as a teen.

Plus it’s true that O’Keeffe was never fully revealed. The show was also intent on dressing the artist. By the 1920s, O’Keeffe had adopted a subversive armor: vestal habits and stark wool capes, felt helmets and subtly pintucked blouses that she sewed herself in black and white. The garments took center stage in each gallery, projecting shapes and colors and angles that beckoned her early flowers and cityscapes toward them. I sensed that she wasn’t just presenting an identity but playing with the very idea, blurring the boundaries between her work and her persona. It’s a kind of freedom that does take courage, especially for a woman of the early 20th century. Living modern, the exhibit seemed to say, was an immersive experience. All of us moderns can do it, but O’Keeffe perfected it.

The risk for the artist whose world is art, whose muse is never off duty, is a life that becomes caricature, and a caricature that becomes commodity.

What’s striking is how the myth became sellable. By middle age, O’Keeffe had retreated to her Ghost Ranch in the U.S. Southwest, with whose hinterland she’s most associated. In the show’s interior galleries she appeared in Levis denim, the consummate artist-at-work. Strong formal unities emerged between her paintings and landscape and clothes, like the plummeting V-shaped neckline of a ravine in the 1950 painting “In the Patio IX” that matches the black and white angles of her Emilio Pucci dress.

From left, “In the Patio IX” (1950) by O’Keeffe, Polaroids by O’Keeffe of Glen Canyon (1964), and an Emilio Pucci dress. Photo: Michael Friedrich.

Entire modernist movements had tried and failed in their experiments to make art of ordinary life. The Bauhaus, for example, fussed over a gesamtkunstwerk, or “total artwork,” that would aestheticize life, right down to the details of the dishware and furniture. Meanwhile, O’Keeffe casually created a totemic world that still resonates in the American commercial imagination as spiritual and artistic independence.

But mythmaking can oppress. In his seminal Mythologies, Roland Barthes makes an example of “The Writer on Holiday.” It’s an image, writes Barthes, of the artist as superhuman: “Writers are on holiday, but their muse is awake, and gives birth non-stop.” The poor muse! But the poor artist too. The consequence, Barthes warns, is grave: it’s “one of these cunning mystifications which the Establishment practices to better enslave its writers.” A dramatic claim, but what would such an enslavement look like?

Living Modern’s final gallery, titled “Celebrity,” gave me a sense. An Andy Warhol portrait, crop-dusted in glitter, announced that O’Keeffe’s image had wandered into the territory of simulacrum — a copy without an original, or at least whose original was illegibly faded. Mildly sainted, a shaman in her hallowed New Mexico hermitage, by late life she had fully “gone native” (my girlfriend texted: “But like did she appropriate pueblo culture?”). A series of photos by increasingly famous photographers — Bruce Weber, Annie Liebovitz — depicted O’Keeffe playing herself. A few hand-sewn wool dresses yielded to dozens of tailored Knize suits. In her senescence, she owned all the Neiman Marcus model robes and Ferragamo flats she could cram into her adobe closets.

It’s a tribute to O’Keeffe that, as her star rose, she never seemed to lose her characteristic sense of play. See the photos of her smiling wryly or twisting her trademark babushka for the camera. But the risk for the artist whose world is art, whose muse is never off duty, is a life that becomes caricature, and a caricature that becomes commodity.

In O’Keeffe’s case, this took the form of Vogue and Calvin Klein fashion spreads photographed on her ranch — a phenomenon the exhibit showcased in a special little room alongside other biographical material. By the 1980s, her image and environs were so familiar that a model in a head wrap with a ram’s horn on any old patch of red earth was enough to signify the independence O’Keeffe had come to represent. This was prime branding for the Yuppie era, and we still see its legacy today in the intermittent mania for all things Southwest-themed. From the confines of bourgeois life, could we buy our way back: to native spirituality, simplicity, wholeness?

Liebovitz, for her part, devoured the myth. A placard displayed her remarks on working with O’Keeffe:

Something just hit me about the way she lived. Her frugality — all of her linens were frayed — is a reminder that we don’t need much. She had a simple life: she worked every day, grew a vegetable garden, and ate well, walking on this land that she was so drawn to. She was the real thing.

This of the artist in the Pucci dress.

As we left Living Modern, I floated this contradiction to my mom. She batted it away summarily. “Well,” my mom said, “she was the real thing.”

My mom was right. And as my girlfriend reminded me, “I guess if you’re out there doing it in the desert for forty years it’s legit.” If the exhibit left me with any impression, it’s that Georgia O’Keeffe was among the realest, most uncompromising artists of the 20th century. It’s just that “the real thing” is too great an expectation to heap onto any artist — or anyone at all.

We’ve come to demand so much intimacy from our public figures. But the realer we believe it to be, the more ground we cede to a social order that puts public identity to market use.

In The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson writes that “any fixed claim on realness, especially when it is tied to an identity, has a finger in psychosis.” Lifting from Lacan, she continues, “If a man who thinks he’s a king is mad, a king who thinks he’s a king is no less so.” One thing that makes O’Keeffe so compelling is how keenly aware she seemed that identity is shapeable. She knows she’s not royalty, at least not always.

And yet her celebrity has conditioned us to see her as such. Barthes deploys a different regal image to ironize the common vision of artistic authenticity: “one is a writer as Louis XIV was king, even on the commode.”

The temptation is great for artists to invite us into their bedrooms and closets and commodes. The temptation is greater for us to follow them in. (The impulse toward social media is only a logical extension of this, by which we’re all the artists of our own lives.) O’Keeffe formed a template for the modern artist living as a celebrity, but in the end her image belonged more to us than to her. One thing the specter of O’Keeffe illuminates to me is just how much intimacy we’ve come to demand from our public figures — and how badly we want it to be real. But the realer we believe this intimacy to be, the more ground we cede to a social order that puts public identity to market use. By design, the fingers of capital reach even into the most private realms, that our desires might be known and delivered as products. Maybe one way to resist this is to remember what O’Keeffe seemed to insist: that identity remains in play.