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Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate Modern
Image Credit: Detail from Georgia O'Keeffe - Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II, 1930

Georgia O’Keeffe at the Tate Modern

27 July 2016 Tom Faber

The Tate Modern’s first new exhibition since it opened a second building is suitably ambitious: a retrospective on America’s most celebrated female artist, Georgia O’Keeffe. The show takes in the works that O’Keeffe is best known for, but also explores an unexamined side of her art which adds dimension for fans and critics alike.



Even if you don’t know her name, you’ve seen Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings. Her still lives of flowers and skulls are delicately coloured, obviously beautiful and easy to love. As a result, they’ve adorned postcards, posters and prints all over the world, and for every fan who finds beauty in her works, there’s a critic waiting to decry her as simple and overrated. Which judgement of O’Keeffe is true? This new exhibition at the Tate Modern, the largest O’Keeffe retrospective ever to take place outside of America, goes some way to finding an answer.
 
O’Keeffe lived a long, prolific life, regularly painting until the age of 85 when her eyesight began to fail. During her youth she was part of a thriving American art scene centred around photographer Alfred Stieglitz, later O’Keeffe’s husband, and his 291 gallery in New York. The group, which also included close friends Paul Strand and Ansel Adams, would later be known as one of the epicentres of early American modernism. The exhibition’s first room is decorated like 291, showing some of the works O’Keeffe exhibited in her first exhibition in 1916. A mixture of stark charcoal abstractions and gentle watercolours of landscapes, these first works show the two directions that O’Keeffe would continue to explore, reconcile and reconfigure across her long career.
 
Detail from Georgia O'Keeffe - Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1, 1932
 
The exhibition is vast, with fifteen rooms that each present different periods and aspects of O’Keeffe’s works. Some will be familiar to anyone with a casual interest in American art. O’Keeffe’s flowers have long been her most famous pieces, but here they are confined to a small room, with only a handful on display. They remain striking works, enlarged in a way that forces the viewer to engage with the complex beauty of a single bloom. Many, including Stieglitz himself, pushed an interpretation of these works as symbols of female genitalia, but O’Keeffe herself rejected this, commenting, “when people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.”
 
O’Keeffe first travelled to New Mexico aged 42, and reported, “as soon as I saw it, that was my country.” She never left for long afterwards, and many of her most prominent works depict the state’s arid landscape. We see immaculate deer skulls drifting above the mesas, objects of remarkable beauty. There are adobe houses and dusty pink mountains that rise from the ground like shards of glass. One painting shows the shadow of a Catholic cross in the foreground, the endless mesas and Native American towns beyond. It’s a wonderfully simple depiction of the cultural layering that goes into creating a national identity, one society often rebuilding directly on top of another.
 

Alfred Stieglitz - Georgia O'Keeffe, 1918
 
Many will enjoy these images, but where the Tate truly excels is in showing a side of O’Keeffe that many won’t have seen before. These include New York cityscapes, architectural studies and images of an impossibly blue sky seen through the hole in a pelvis bone. Much of O’Keeffe’s work engaged in this level of abstraction, but has not been canonised like her flowers and skulls. This is unfortunate because some of her less figurative work is the most impressive in the show – the jagged blues and greens of the lake at Lake George, a tree’s branches crackling with energy, whipping and carving the air around them. Many are more reduced, captivating exercises in colour and form that reference the experience of music or the intangible contours of the unconscious.
 
It’s well known that of all the great artists across history, some are remembered and some are not. Whether someone’s work becomes part of the canon is not always directly relative to their skill or originality – it can be a case of good timing or just plain luck. Less discussed is the fact that of these canonized artists, it is often a particular strand or interpretation of their work which is historicized, while the natural paradoxes in the art of a human being are glossed over for future generations. That is why the range and size of this exhibition is important. It shows that O’Keeffe is not an overrated populist or a modernist legend, a landscape painter or a hunter of abstraction, a mythical artist of American identity or a case of right place, right time, right friends. She’s all of these things, and more besides.
 
The exhibition is at The Tate Modern until 30th October. Book tickets online.

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