Georgia O’Keeffe

O'Keeffe: Oriental Poppies

(Tate Modern, until 30 October 2016)

I had great intentions to see masses of exhibitions during my summer break, but didn’t make it to quite as many as planned. I did, however, head over to Tate Modern (not a place I go often enough), where I explored their new wing, admired the panorama of London from its viewing deck and, most importantly, visited their current exhibition on Georgia O’Keeffe. As I’ve said before, my knowledge of modern artists is sketchy to say the least – I generally deal with artists who’ve been dead for at least a hundred years – and I knew very little about O’Keeffe, but the exhibition did a great job of introducing me to her innovative, colourful and elegant paintings.

The exhibition is arranged broadly chronologically, which worked extremely well as a way to follow O’Keeffe’s changing preoccupations and ambitions. Born in Wisconsin in 1887, she decided at the age of twelve that she wanted to become an artist and by the age of 25 was studying at the Art Club at the University of Virginia, where she encountered the theoretical works of Wassily Kadinsky. Faced with these new ideas, she realised that they were completely different from the traditional, classical artistic style she’d been taught so far and so she simply scrapped everything she’d learned to date and started again. She began drawing abstract forms in charcoal, working purely in monochrome. Later she explained that she’d ‘decided not to use any other colour until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white‘. How’s that for discipline? And her fluid, scrolling forms certainly caught the attention of the right people. She sent a few of her drawings to a former fellow student, who now lived in New York, and this friend showed them in turn (unsolicited) to the influential dealer Alfred Stieglitz.

Stieglitz was bowled over. The avant-garde art world at this time was very tightly focused on New York and it seemed astonishing that a girl from the wilds of Wisconsin had been able to develop an individual vision that equalled anything being produced by the darlings of the modern art scene. Stieglitz offered to exhibit O’Keeffe’s drawings and her first show was held in his gallery, 291, in New York in 1916 (making this a centenary exhibition). I didn’t realise at first, but the style of the opening room is designed to echo that of 291, with its waist-height counter and pleated black valance running around the walls. Very subtle and very clever on the part of the exhibition designers. And it’s only fair to note that O’Keeffe’s art wasn’t the only thing that caught Stieglitz’s attention. He was also fascinated by O’Keeffe herself and they swiftly became lovers; moreover, as a photographer, Stieglitz was looking for a muse and he found one in O’Keeffe, whose graceful but stern beauty became the focus of whole series of his photographs.

O’Keeffe rapidly found that monochrome no longer suited her needs. From 1916 she began making landscape sketches in fluid sweeps of watercolours, which for me gave a much clearer sense of setting than her finished pictures. Evoked with broad planes of colour and diluted washes, she shows a blue mountain swelling against the sky; a green dash of pine forest backed by red and blue ridges, streaked with areas of untouched white paper which suggest gullies of snow. But none of these sketches were quite as evocative as her Red and Orange Streak (1919), which doesn’t represent a landscape so much as the feel of the Texas landscape. The golden arc across the canvas is meant to suggest the sound of cattle lowing out on the prairie and, although I’m precisely the kind of person who tends to raise an eyebrow at such claims, I tried to understand. And I think I began to get there: the arc in its very form is a horn shape and its hollowness, somehow turning in upon itself, might reflect the depth and the resonance of the sound? Sound and music were deeply significant to O’Keeffe and the Tate explained her sensitivity in terms of synaesthesia: the translation of one sense into another. For O’Keeffe, music could be and was transformed into visual art, as in her Blue and Green Music (1919/21), which reminded me of the abstract shapes used in Disney’s Fantastia. Similarly, the 1918 painting Music: Pink and Blue No. 1 shows forms like ripples of cloth, bunching up in waves of pink and white against a blue background.

As she developed her art in the 1920s, though, O’Keeffe found herself running up against unexpected problems. She happened to be an artist who was a woman, but her femininity never struck her as something that was remotely relevant to her art. Stieglitz didn’t share this opinion, though. As her dealer as well as her lover, he encouraged her to move away from watercolour towards the more ‘serious’ method of oil painting, and he also began to drum up interest in O’Keeffe’s abstract paintings by presenting them as insights into the female mind. This annoyed O’Keeffe no end. She was trying to be taken seriously and suddenly the (male) art critics were reducing her art to euphemism. In one interview, she declared that ‘When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.’ And indeed, many of her works function perfectly well without imposing sexual innuendos on them. In Abstraction – Alexius (1928), her abstraction looks like clouds billowing over the ruffled lip of an oyster shell (if we can agree that an oyster is, sometimes, just an oyster?), while Abstraction: Blue (1927) shows layers of pink and indigo and turquoise flowing up from a more solid centre, like the levels of a flame, or an artichoke in cross section.

But some works are less easy to see with an unbiased eye. With the best will in the world, one can’t easily look at Grey lines with black, blue and yellow (1923) and see anything but a cervix. I did begin to feel sorry for O’Keeffe. She spent the 1920s insisting that the male critics were wrong to dismiss her as ‘just’ a woman artist, and she’d have to wade into the fray all over again in the 1970s, when feminist critics began appropriating her works as ’empowering’ representations of womanhood. Even now, the Tate has emblazoned posters with quotes which focus attention on O’Keeffe’s battle not to be regarded as a woman artist. I get the sense this would rather have annoyed her. O’Keeffe didn’t want to be empowering. She didn’t want to be celebrated as a ‘woman artist’, like some kind of unusual performing seal. She just wanted to be allowed to paint, and judged on her abilities along with her peers, male or female.

She did fight back, though. In 1930 she painted Black, White and Blue, an aggressively cubist, dark composition with which she tried to disassociate herself from all of the sexist nonsense; but, even here, there’s material for the determined Freudian critic, as a shard of white pierces a broad black curve. More problematic for the interpreters was her ambitious New York series, which sought to capture the spirit of the city. Needless to say, she was told it couldn’t be done, but I think New York Street with Moon of 1925 comes pretty close, and evokes Manhattan in all its angularity and grandeur. Not all of this series was figurative, though: Night (Madison Avenue) (1926) looks like nothing so much as a carefully pressed sheet of linen.

The exhibition then focuses for a moment on O’Keeffe’s relationship with Stieglitz, which was evidently hugely important for her both emotionally and artistically. It shows how the two artists drew on each other, whether that was O’Keeffe borrowing Stieglitz’s motifs, such as the cloud patterns she painted in Celebration (1924) to mark their wedding, or Stieglitz using O’Keeffe as a model.

I became slightly uncomfortable looking at his photographs of her. Not only had he appropriated her work, engaging collectors by imposing meanings on her paintings that she never intended, but through his photographs he also appropriated her body, thereby connecting her ever more firmly with physicality and the feminine. Some of his photographs show her in ‘official’ mode: stern and stiff, dressed in black and white in a pared-down style that would have looked startlingly modern at the time, with her hair slicked back beneath her hat. But there are a series of photos from 1918-1919 that record a very different vision of O’Keeffe. In one she is shown with hair unbound, her shirt open to draw the eye down into her cleavage; in the others she is reduced to body parts: graceful hands, gesturing; breasts; or a headless nude. The Tate see these as the product of a discussion between the artists, in which O’Keeffe was an ‘aesthetic collaborator’. This may be so, but she would regret it: in the following decade, the 1920s, the photos would help to convince her critics that her work was nothing but a voluptuous expression of her own physicality.

The rest of the show is dedicated to series of works that O’Keeffe produced, and here I was driven by aesthetic pleasure rather than by following her life story as I had earlier. I loved the flower paintings, not because I’m particularly fond of botanical art, but because they were so vivid and imposing and yet so simple at the same time. O’Keeffe had hoped that no one could possibly misunderstand flowers, but as ever she was thwarted by the critics, who decided that flowers were a very feminine thing to paint, despite her powerful and oversized presentation. She herself painted flowers on this tremendous scale because she wanted to encourage people to slow down and look at nature, rather than simply rushing past in the course of their busy lives. If that was true in the late 1920s and early 1930s, just imagine how much more so it is today! There’s something almost totemic about her Jimson Weed (1932), which luxuriates over all the posters but is so much more impressive in real life, while her Oriental Poppies (1927) are sumptuous, their shimmering crimson petals crushed together over smudged, bruised centres.

Simplicity also comes to the fore in her New Mexico paintings, which she began painting on her first visit in 1929 and continued throughout the rest of her career. She was utterly captivated by this barren but beautiful landscape, whose austerity fitted so well with her style. The softened form of the hills, and the different colours of earth and rock, fired up her brush: on one hand there are cool, calm pictures like Soft Grey, Alcalde Hill (1929-30), while on the other the palette roars into life, as in the blazing Rust Red Hills (1930), in which the rounded forms rise one above the other, creased like clay with the passage of the ages. But it wasn’t just the natural world that intrigued her. She was also inspired by the almost abstract shapes of adobe buildings and I was much taken with Ranchos Church (1930-1), in which the architecture is reduced to a series of pale blocks. For O’Keeffe, this land was hers. Stieglitz never went to New Mexico and, after his death in 1946, O’Keeffe moved there to pursue her ambitions even more intensively.

I was far more impressed with her bone paintings than I expected to be. From the Faraway, Nearby (1937) is a playful juxtaposition of life and nature, transience and permanence, colour and pallor, all emphasised by the incongruity of scale, with the deer skull towering over the tiny pink-and-white mountains. An even simpler contrast appears in Horse’s Skull on Blue (1931), which does exactly what it says on the tin, using a limited palette of colours but no less impressive for that. Skulls lose their grim associations and become forms, beautiful abstract shapes with curves and wells of shadow.

O’Keeffe pushed this idea to its extreme in her Pelvic Bone series, where she held up pelvic bones against the sky and painted the vivid blue glimpsed through the holes in the bone. Pelvis I (1944) is another striking contrast, and it seems that blue sky had a particular significance for O’Keeffe in representing eternity, the everlasting, a greater power. In this way the frequent use of blue in her bone paintings looks less like a merely colouristic choice and more a philosophical one. If I can mention just one more picture, I’d choose her Sky Above the Clouds III (1963), which at first sight just shows a series of flat white discs stretching away in the distance. In fact this is O’Keeffe’s representation of clouds seen from an aeroplane, trying to suggest the sense of solidity that you have when looking down from a plane window, as if you could open the door and walk about on them. It’s an example of how she can transform a very mundane idea into an immediately striking image.

As you can tell, I was impressed by O’Keeffe. Both her abstract and figurative work appealed to me, and I bought far too many postcards in the shop. I think that what I admire is the sense of her passion and intensity. She didn’t paint what people wanted to buy, but followed her own heart and refused to accept the meanings that were imposed on her own art, always experimenting with new styles and new motifs. There’s nothing calculated or cynical about her work: it’s simply refreshing, essential and clear. I’m very glad I made the effort to visit and, in fact, I’m hoping to go to another exhibition quite soon about another artist who just happened to be a woman – Winifred Knights, at Dulwich – and who was working at much the same period as O’Keeffe. It’ll be interesting to see how their works compare.

I haven’t read the catalogue properly yet, but I did buy it and it looks very fine, with a lot of essays and good-quality colour reproductions. If you’re interested by O’Keeffe and would like to learn a little more about her, this would probably be a very good place to start.

Buy the catalogue

5 thoughts on “Georgia O’Keeffe

  1. ianzoom says:

    Coincidentally my visit to this exhibition and your blog occurred on the same day. Your review is very thorough and interesting, filling out and reinforcing my own experience. I would only add that I didn’t expect to find her abstraction to be so solidly sculptural. She is regarded as modernist but while that leads you to expect a shallow pictorial space her paintings are full of depth and movement. It was a great exhibition and did much to explain and correct her reputation as a painter of sexualised flowers. I’ve always liked her painting but my idea of what she did has been broadened and my respect for her deepened.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thanks so much for your lovely comment, Ian. I’m glad the post was timely for you and that you too enjoyed the exhibition. You’re right about the sculptural quality of her work and – since she was making sculptures in her early period, such as the Abstraction on display in the first room – perhaps she continued to think in a more ‘volumetric’ way than other modernists. Incidentally, I had to smile at the fact that Stieglitz managed to appropriate that Abstraction too. For O’Keeffe it was a standing, shrouded figure with bowed head. Stieglitz took a photograph of it in front of one of her paintings of circular abstractions, turning it into a phallic symbol. One begins to wonder whether it wasn’t him, rather than her, who was fixated…

    • The Idle Woman says:

      You’re welcome! I reiterate that I claim absolutely no expertise in this area – this was simply a way to get what I learned from the exhibition down on paper. She’s truly a fascinating artist and well worth further study. As I said, the catalogue does look very good – a lot meatier and more thorough than some recent exhibition catalogues from London institutions, which have been little more than picture books.

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