A major retrospective at Tate Modern on 20th-century artist Georgia O'Keeffe tells the story of her remarkable and fruitful career across six eventful decades
Tate Modern, London until 30 October
Review By: Rebecca Swirsky
If ticket sales for Tate Modern’s retrospective are any indicator, Brand O’Keeffe is still offering bang for its buck. Having achieved success early - and sustained it - ‘The Mother of Modernism’ shares canonical status alongside heavyweights of her time such as Edward Hopper. Her sensuous, suggestive flower series chime with audiences and art markets, and her iconic - if kitsch - images of sunblasted New Mexico have guidebooks referring to ‘O’Keeffe country’. This is apt - O’Keeffe once said of that part of the USA, ‘God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.’Born in Wisconsin in 1887, O’Keeffe witnessed two world wars, 17 American presidents, the Great Depression, the Thirties’ big drought as well as the migration from east to west, before she died in Santa Fe at the age of 98. Just two years ago, 28 years after the artist’s death, Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1 (1932) positioned O’Keeffe as the world’s most expensive female artist to date, selling for $44.4m at Sotheby’s New York — albeit a figure barely denting the top sale prices of art made by men.
Despite O’Keeffe marrying the man who first showed her work, the gallerist and photographer Albert Stieglitz, she strained against his viewing her art through an overtly gendered, Freudian lens. Responding to Stieglitz and the arts writer Paul Rosenfeld (who wrote, ‘Women, one would judge, always feel, when they feel strongly, through the womb’) O’Keeffe stated: ‘You write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t.’ It was a statement made repeatedly throughout her career, including to first-wave feminist artists Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro who, despite O’Keeffe’s adamant refusal to participate in all-women shows or join up with the women’s movement, claimed O’Keeffe for one of their own.
One hundred years on from O’Keeffe’s New York debut, the Tate’s retrospective sensibly avoids the dilemma of whether O’Keeffe, or indeed any artist, is the best judge of their own work. Instead, its scope and breadth of more than 100 paintings — enabled by loans from 23 American states — tells the story of O’Keeffe’s career through six decades. Thirteen rooms allow the viewer to explore O’Keeffe’s first exhibition at Stieglitz’s New York gallery 291; her early abstractions in which she investigated synaesthesia, paint rippling across the canvases like arias of music; her fruitful- yet-fraught relationship with Stieglitz; where she lived, from Lake George to her beloved, arid New Mexico (see Just Deserts, page 174); and, lastly, her entrancement with air travel.
Including Stieglitz’s photographs alongside O’Keeffe’s paintings makes this an exhibition of conversations. His knowledge of light was visionary, while his crystalline portraits of O’Keeffe, in which she appears alternately indomitable, thoughtful, fierce and dreamy, and his brooding images of their life, together form a counterpoint to her art. They also demonstrate a flow of information between the pair.
Georgia O’Keeffe Breasts (1921), a supple portrait with sinuous lines and gracefully curving shadows, presents traits later adapted into O’Keeffe’s own artistic practice (puzzlingly, O’Keeffe’s response to the portrait, Untitled (Self-portrait, Torso) of 1919, made with blue and pink oil paint, her signature in bold white across her belly, is included in the catalogue but not the exhibition).
O’Keeffe’s flat, compressed style and erasure of perspective means her work often resembles a photograph — a ploy working well with the flower series, as seen with the beguiling, haunting Dark Iris No.1 (1927) and Black Iris (1926), less so with the toy-town-like Taos Pueblo (1929) and landscape The Mountain, New Mexico (1931). My Last Door (1952-4), a near abstract work, is exceptionally good. Sun-bleached, monumental and taut, its Paul Klee-like composition presents a central black rectangle, underneath which 11 horizontal pale -grey rectangles dissipate into punishing heat. O’Keeffe said: ‘I paint because colour is a significant language to me but I do not like pictures and I do not like exhibitions of pictures.’
O’Keeffe’s work often moved between the abstract and the figurative. Her last major series on show in a final room, Sky Above Clouds, is a summation of O’Keeffe’s power at its height, negotiating a balance between the two eponymous elements, enjoyed during travels by air to South America, Asia and the Middle East (including to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico). A classy, cooling palette of blues, dark greens, lime greens, pearly whites and shy pinks offers the knockout impact of a room of Monet’s water lilies. With canvases silted with light and banked with vapour, the series roams wistfully at the skyline, suggesting an infinite expanse of dreaming, of navigating new frontiers and boundaries, both physical and metaphysical.
Image: 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / DACS, London