Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern

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Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern

Published:

Mon, 15/08/2016 - 15:15

By:

paul
Published: 
11 August, 2016
by JOHN EVANS

IT'S odd that Georgia O’Keeffe is accepted as a pioneering modernist yet none of her works is in a UK public collection.

This partly explains the popularity of the Tate’s exhibition of 100 or so of her works, the largest ever outside the US; but another major factor is her longevity, which allows an overview of most of the 20th century. 

While not strictly chronological, the show features works spanning each of the decades from the 1910s to the 1960s. And O’Keeffe, who was born in Wisconsin in 1887 lived until 1986.

The curators say one aim is “to dispel the clichés that persist about O’Keeffe’s painting, emphasising instead the pioneering nature and breadth of her career”. 

It’s true she strenuously talked down what many have seen as strong references to genitalia in her works, particularly in her flower paintings from the 1920s to 1950s.

O’Keeffe said nobody really sees a flower because it’s so small: “So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see, what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big, and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it…” Crucially she added that viewers’ perceptions would be different from hers. And that is a challenge with all of her work, even if it is a neat device for any artist to adopt. Here is a perfect opportunity for visitors to judge for themselves. 

In any event O’Keeffe is already celebrated as the woman with a record price of a painting at auction, $44million in 2014, for her Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1.

From early watercolours of mountains and charcoal experiments with abstracts, through to the late works before O’Keeffe’s eyesight failed, this is a true artistic journey. There are notes on key influences and collaborations, of course. Most important of these are O’Keeffe’s relationships with the photographers Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), to whom she was married from 1924 until his death, and her friend and travel companion Ansel Adams (1902-1984).

Though some of the photographs are included, nevertheless it’s her paintings which tell the interesting story. There are striking landscapes of Virginia and the Texas plains; experiments with the relationship of form, colour, music, and composition; New York cityscapes from 1925 on; paintings from summers and autumns spent at upstate Lake George.

The latter part of the show reflects O’Keeffe’s love affair with New Mexico, which she first visited in 1929, and her fascination with its landscape and topography. She painted the high altitude desert, collected animal bones, and created her skull paintings series; promoting an idea of the “Faraway”, as she termed it, spirit of the country.

What is clear is a constancy of commitment whatever her subject. She said: “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest.”

Her first home in New Mexico, purchased in 1940, was on part of Ghost Ranch, an hour or so drive north from Santa Fe, and she would later buy a house in Abiquiú, a little further south.

Explorations of the landscape include other series paintings, notably of Pedernal mountain and those inspired by “the White Place”, cliffs in the Chama valley and “Black Place”, hills 150 miles west of Ghost Ranch, given their distinctive look by erosion caused by the formation of the Rockies. Then there are adobes, doors, cottonwood trees, and more series. 

Particularly with still-lifes, O’Keeffe used cropping techniques learned from photography; for example with a series featuring pelvis bones – and the view through them!

Yet people simply do not feature. 

There is almost a continuum from the early watercolour mountains to 1960s skyscape abstractions inspired by plane journeys. But what can be discerned as changing is the nature of O’Keeffe’s brushwork from the earlier oils, with more precise outlines, to a later, more sketchy, approach, maybe an attempt to provide even more accessible paintings and a relaxation brought about by public acclaim.

Image: Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie’s II, 1930, oil on canvas mounted on board, 24¼ x 36¼ ins.
Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

• Georgia O’Keeffe runs at Tate Modern, Bankside, SE1 until October 30, admission £19, concessions available, tate.org.uk

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