Georgia O’Keeffe is most well known for her “blown up” flower paintings – but a new show at Tate Modern celebrates a much wider range of significant works including undulating landscapes, bone paintings and evocative portraits of the artist by her husband, the Modern art pioneer and photographer Alfred Stieglitz
The retrospective, which runs from 6 July until 30 October 2016, features more than 100 works of art by or related to the American modernist painter Georgia O’Keeffe and is the first UK exhibition of her work for over twenty years. Spanning the six decades in which she was most productive, between the 1910s and the 1970s, it charts the progression of her early abstract experiments to her late works and aims to dispel the clichés that persist about the artist and her painting – namely that she only produced blown up flower paintings and the gravitas that was placed on her as a “female artist” dealing in female forms and gender issues. In her own words: “Men put me down as the best woman painter… I think I’m one of the best painters.”
There are no O’Keeffe works owned or on display by UK pubic collections so this is a rare opportunity to see famous works such as Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1931) and Abstraction White Rose (1927) but also less well known offerings such as Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out of Black Marie’s II 1930 (see main image above).
Perhaps one of the most engaging elements of the show however is the selection of portraits and nudes of O’Keeffe by Modernist trailblazer Alfred Stieglitz – photographer, gallerist, the impresario behind her first exhibition at his 291 Gallery in New York and the man she married in 1924. The photographs provide a further insight into the allure of O’Keeffe as a woman and an artist – her mystery, her power and her defiance – and also set the scene for the influence of Modernist photography on her work resulting in treatments such as close cropping, playful distortion and magnification.
In 1949, upon Steiglitz’s death, O’Keeffe set up home near the iconic red earth and rolling hills of New Mexico of which she first fell in love over a decade before. She painted the barren landscape over and over again and it is within these images, perhaps, that O’Keeffe’s true soul lies. Such was her harmony with this land and her relationship with it, she stayed there for the final 37 years of her life. Indeed parts of this distinctive landscape are now known colloquially as “O’Keeffe Country”.
Interestingly there are not many flowers in New Mexico but O’Keeffe’s odd obsessive nature quickly found a replacement in the form of the bleached out animal bones she found strewn across the desert.
“I found I could say things with colour and shapes that I couldn’t say any other way – things I had no words for”, said O’Keeffe in 1976 just ten years before she died at the grand old age of 98.
These are wise words for any visitor to this fascinating show. Instead of searching for a kind of premeditated symbolic meaning within O’Keeffe’s flower paintings, landscapes or still lives – the erotic subtext or the feminine slant – look again at the true essence that binds them: the innate need of an artist to produce, to express, to explore and to feel one’s way through life, in all the many colours and shapes that there are often no adequate words for.
Main image: Georgia O’Keeffe – Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II (1930) Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation ©Georgia O’Keeffe Museum
FIELD NOTES //
Georgia O’Keeffe runs at Tate Modern from 6 July to 30 October 2016 in The Eyer Ofal Galleries // Visiting times Sun to Thurs 10am to 6pm and Fri/Sat 10am to 10pm // See www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/georgia-okeeffe