"I found I could say things with color and shapes
that I couldn't say any other way --
things I had no words for."
Not long ago I mentioned my plans to make an "O'Keeffe pilgrimage" in the spring. My tennis buddy perked up and said that I must have seen the current exhibit at the Reynolda Museum in Winston-Salem. I had not but the sun barely set before I had made reservations, signed up for a lecture and booked a package with the nearby Graylyn Estate owned by Wake Forest. Be still my heart, lots of history and art accompanied by haute dining and fine wine!
It was hard not to sit down and read the entire 300 page catalogue they gave us upon check-in but I resisted as our timed tickets were coming due. The Reynolda House, (of course of RJ Reynolds fame) is not a huge venue, much of the home is left intact, furnishings et al, as part of the exhibit, so tickets are timed and many of the rooms (small turn of the century bedrooms) are closely monitored for capacity.
What a treat this proved to be. The curator, Wanda Corn, proposed the exhibit using clothes left by O'Keeffe as a springboard to all manner of insight and discovery. There is no way I can do proper justice to Corn's work, or her breadth of knowledge, in a short blog. But this was without a doubt one of the most interesting pathways I have ever followed into learning more about the life and work of a major artist. I will try to share just a few "take aways" in no particular order.
- O'Keeffe was an accomplished and prolific seamstress from an young age. Early photos show her preference for a streamlined style of whatever the current fashion and a reduction of the styles to neutral colors and natural materials. She somehow had the patience and skill to pin tuck entire blouses making them into the shape she desired. Later this knowledge lead to a highly discerning preference for well made, exquisitely designed clothing.
(p 96 exhibit catalog)
Alfred Stieglitz, photographs, 1918
Her many years of modeling for manager and husband, Alfred Stieglitz, taught her much about image projection. The black and white photos he took have intentional structure and shape and while it tested her patience to model as he directed, the experience proved to be valuable in the future design and maintenance of her public persona. It is rare to find a photo of her in anything but black, almost never does she look directly at the camera, her head is always a shape designed to convey a mood etc. Because she is, throughout her life, very controlling with other photographers who came to capture her (including Ansel Adams, Arnold Newman, Cecil Beaton...), she maintained total control of the public image she wished to project. I told my husband that she certainly understood "branding" before that word was bantered about.
(sorry it is wonky, the person in front of me wouldn't schooch over!)
- Despite her penchant for being photographed in black and white, I did learn that she and I share a love for the color red, no doubt one of the reasons she chose to move west for half of her life. Knowing this made it interesting to look for red throughout the exhibit.
- Even as she controlled the images of her that circulated publicly, it was widely known that she was not one thing in private and another in public. O'Keeffe always seemed to embody her preference for minimalism and shape whether it was in her art, her homes, collections or her wardrobe.
My photos are not quality, nor comprehensive because I was too preoccupied in absorbing every morsel to remember to pop out the camera. But my notes (taken in the dark lecture hall) are endless. I could share so much more about a most intriguing view of an artist I only thought I knew.. But one final tidbit:
(photo from exhibit pamphlet)
Pool in the Woods, 1922, collection of Reynolda House Museum of American Art
When I came across this piece in the exhibit I noted it was owned by the hosting museum. I asked the knowledgable guard how many more pieces they owned and he smiled. "Only this one," he answered. "The curator wanted it in the exhibit so the Reynolda agreed on the condition that the entire exhibit, when ready, would visit. Other than Brooklyn and Boston, this is the only eastern location Living Modern will appear." (please click that link to view a short video I just found from the Brooklyn Museum)
Wow. My lucky day! As you are reading this the exhibit has left Winston-Salem; but it is worthy to note that the Renaldo was able, right after we left, to negotiate one additional week of scheduling for this magnificent show. The attendance by southern art enthusiasts had far exceeded their expectation.
and of course: P.S. - remember how much you have read about the taboo sexual innuendos in her paintings of flowers?