If Georgia O’Keeffe for you is simply animal skulls on desert plains and sensual full-blown flowers, you are in for a surprise. Tate Modern presents a huge retrospective of the core six decades of her life (until 30 Oct), showing how the two strands of abstraction and modernism ran throughout her life. It is the single biggest exhibition of O’Keeffe ever outside the States, and celebrates a century since her first showing in New York at the 921 gallery, with the man who would become her husband, Alfred Stieglitz.
O’Keeffe was no retiring wallflower, saying famously, ‘Men put me down as the best woman painter… I think I am one of the best painters.’ The issue of gender has dogged her entire career, from her early painting days when she resisted claims that she couldn’t paint anything as masculine as Manhattan cityscapes, to the Seventies when her work was commandeered by feminists who celebrated the coded sexuality they found in her play of colour in the probing close-up of flowers.
Looking at the Tate’s incredible range of her work, one sees an artist who followed her own very individual vision and left an indelible stamp on America’s Wild West, finding the arid region’s own form of wildflower in the skulls and sticks that dotted the landscape. At times it is difficult to separate the enormous public figure from the work, especially when you are faced with those ‘postcard’ pictures, or famous photographs of the artist as an angular young nude (Stieglitz) or a black-hatted elderly pioneer (Ansel Adams), but in all of that she continued to defy convention. In fact, it was those early nudes by Stieglitz, who was not only an influential New York gallery owner but also a photographer, that set the path for the gender labels O’Keeffe would spend her life trying to discard.
Georgia O’Keeffe – Lake George 1922 San Francisco Museum of Modern Art
The first room recreates Gallery 921 in 1916, showing early charcoal abstracts, intense watercolour washes of landscapes and Red and Orange Streak, a vivid oil on canvas which combines the abstract and the landscape. More than many artists, there is no great schism between early and later works. Her images are very consistent, even though the palette and the subject may change: from pure abstraction, through the depictions of the East Coast lake where the family holidayed, to the aridity of New Mexico where she settled from 1949, to the last room showing her play with the infinity horizons she saw from planes.
There is an intensity to the colours that can never be properly reproduced, so seeing the actual works is quite an experience. They are also smaller than I had imagined. The poster image of a white Morning Glory flower, a work that sold for a record $44 million, a few of the desertscapes, and the final cloudscape are over a metre, but most are not. They look like paintings made to hang in homes, not to impress in museums. O’Keeffe’s perspectives always surprise, whether in the exquisite flowers, her atmospheric portrayal of the canyons of midtown Manhattan or a tiny sliver of blue sky visible above the towering New Mexico mountains. The blue-greens of the Lake George period turn into the browner palette of the Southwest, yet even there she can find a view from her porch where the arid red rock seems cloaked in soft green growth. There are also paintings of such alien rock and mountain formations that even a faithful rendition of the surroundings would read as an abstract play of colour and line, such as images of the Black Place, where O’Keeffe would camp overnight. She called it “such a beautiful, untouched lonely-feeling place – part of what I call the Far Away”.
O’Keeffe certainly brought a sense of Manhattan glamour to this faraway place. There is something about her flourishing as a woman in such a hostile physical environment that continues to intrigue the public. At the age of 90, when asked about her success, she said: “It takes a kind of nerve – and a lot of hard, hard work.” There are no paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe in any public British collection, so this really is a singular chance to experience the full range of this artist’s oeuvre and see the reality behind the myth.