Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II 1930 | Oil on canvas mounted on board | Georgia O’Keeffe Museum | Gift of The Burnett Foundation

Keeping It Real

15th July 2016

Tate Modern’s latest extravaganza is devoted to trail-blazing
20th century American artist Georgia O’Keeffe.

Jill Glenn went along.

This ambitious retrospective is the largest exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work ever to have been staged outside the US – and it’s a substantial affair, with 13 rooms displaying 115 major O’Keeffes sourced from 71 lenders around the world. Add to that a selection of photographs (for example, by art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, who became O’Keeffe’s husband, and Ansel Adams, a lifelong friend), plus sketch books and reference works, and you have a pretty thorough look at the main years of O’Keeffe’s long artistic life: from the second decade of the 20th century through to the 1960s. The Tate’s achievement in assembling this range and richness (despite one or two notable exceptions) is not to be downplayed.

O’Keeffe’s pivotal role in the history of American modernism is assured – but this show takes the opportunity to look afresh at her work, aiming to go beyond the clichés frequently associated with her. We see how consistent she is, but also how she changes and develops.

Curators Tanya Barson and Hannah Johnston have set up Room 1 to evoke the atmosphere of O’Keeffe’s first show, which took place when she was 28, in spring 1916 – almost exactly a hundred years ago – at Gallery 291 on Fifth Avenue, New York. Photos along one wall show how accurately we have been treated to the way Stieglitz laid out the room – and on the other walls we approach, as if for the first time, examples of O’Keeffe’s earliest mature works. They include charcoal drawings, in which she challenged herself to create modernist imagery without colour, abandoning all the means she’d previously been taught (having declared her intention to be an artist as a child, she had been taking classes since the age of ten). These have both strength and delicacy – as engaging now as they must have been a hundred years ago. They look finished. The early watercolours (Blue Hill No. II and Pink and Blue Mountain), on the opposite side of the room, feel more exercises or experiments, but already there are signs of the preoccupations of her future work.

Room 1 sets the scene for the two strands that continue throughout her career – modernist abstraction and the American landscape – and introduces us to her personality. A 1918 photo by Stieglitz (Georgia O’Keeffe with watercolour paintbox) shows a composed, contained face, full of focus and determination, and – perhaps I’m projecting – not that happy at being disturbed. She’s known for having been a loner, although a later photograph, from 1924, in which she is laughing with her sister Ida, reveals an entirely different, more human Georgia.

Helpfully for critics of O’Keeffe, from the earliest years her artistic sensibilities found form in words as much as in drawings or paintings. The introductory board in each of the rooms in the Tate’s homage begins with her own writing, and many of the pictures have comments printed beside them. No. 15 Special, for example, has a few lines describing a regular trip to Palo Duro Canyon in Texas, where she was teaching at the time: ‘The only paths were narrow, winding cow paths... It was usually very dry, and it was a lone place. Often as we were leaving we would see a long line of cattle like black lace against the sunlit sky.’ Her internalisation of the experience has reformulated it into something distinctly abstract.

By Room 2 we are already seeing how O’Keeffe was developing her own artistic language of abstraction. A major early influence was her interest in synaesthesia, a neurological phenomenon where stimulation of one of the senses triggers sensation in another: hearing colours, for example, or tasting numbers. She was particularly interested in how to convert a sensory response into visual art. It’s fundamental to her work, in fact: she’s all about the experience. ‘If you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for a moment,’ she wrote. Her first flower abstraction, Abstraction White Rose, is shown here: another taste of things to come. Nearby is Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow – a more interesting and intriguing piece than its title implies, vibrantly and beautifully coloured. It’s one of several works regularly claimed to represent female genitalia, an analogy the artist fiercely denied.

Working side by side, living on the 30th floor of the Shelton Hotel in New York, Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were embedded in each other’s lives and the lives of the circle around them. Again she was inspired by her surroundings. When she first expressed a desire to paint New York City she was told that ‘even the men hadn’t done too well with it’, that she was crazy even to think of it. “I did it anyway,” she said. She dealt with criticisms head on, through her work, refusing to be deterred, painting whatever she wanted and proving she could make any subject her own.

As interesting as the early rooms are, it’s probably not until Room 5 – The Lake George works – that the show is going to come to life for most people. Lake George, in upstate New York, was the location of the Stieglitz family summer residence; Georgia and Alfred went regularly, both for the society (there were sometimes as many as 20 at dinner) and the countryside. Here, she enjoyed ‘tramping’ – out in all weathers, far from home, immersing herself in the landscape. ‘I feel smothered with green,’ she wrote. Here, too, she continued the interest in architecture that she had developed in NYC. Lake George Barns, for example, shows a different language of painting from that for which she’s generally known, and also foreshadows an interest in buildings that becomes more evident in paintings from her time living in Abiquiú, New Mexico.

Simultaneously, she was exploring natural forms and colours. From the Lake, No 1, and From the Lake, No 3, both painted in 1924, show her taking modernism out of the city, challenging herself to use this approach to seeing the urban on new material. These pictures, both very different, are about her experience of the lake: turbulent clouds, rolling waves, all conveyed through intense colour. The Lake George years show her command of a different palette – blues and greens, and intense reds and oranges – to the one for which she is predominantly known. It’s also the start of her habit of visiting the same locations again and again, obsessing over them, never tiring of investigating new ways to capture her interpretation.

The Tate is showing surprisingly few of the flower paintings with which audiences are most likely to be familiar. Journalists in my hearing at the press view were positing loan restrictions as the reason, although we do at least see Jimson Weed/White Flower, which in 2014 became the most expensive painting by a female artist ever sold at auction ($44.4m: £34.2m).

By way of compensation for the lack of flora, the closing rooms are lavishly filled with works from New Mexico, where she spent much of her life; she adored the barren landscape with its vast skies. She also collected bones from the desert, beguiled by their form. The resulting series of Skull Paintings are beautifully detailed, although they make me uneasy; I prefer to spend my time lost in front of Black Mesa Landscape / Out Back of Marie’s II or Chama River, Ghost Ranch, or the almost calligraphic From the River – Pale.

Just looking is good, but there is much to read and learn in this exhaustive (and exhausting) show, and in the accompanying catalogue. O’Keeffe herself might have had her doubts about the fervour with which journalists and critics alike worry at what the paintings mean. ‘It is easier for me to paint it than to write about it and I would so much rather people would look at it than read about it,’ she observed in 1930. Ironically, her writing, both descriptive and analytical, is as compelling as her art; it’s an added bonus in a show that shares old favourites and exposes unknown glories.

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