When art lovers think of the southwest, images likes Georgia OKeeffe’s landscapes come to mind: the New Mexican desert, the bones and the flowers and the vistas where she lived for over forty years. But O’Keeffe’s work is rarely displayed in the United Kingdom, so this autumn’s retrospective at the Tate Modern is an unusual celebration of her work on this side of the pond.
Though the show is hers, the exhibition also includes work by other artists, mainly men with whom she was friendly that worked in the same southwestern style, and photographs by her husband, Albert Stieglitz. The insistence on pairing her work with theirs, whatever the intent, in this case, minimizes her phenomenal achievements. Displaying Stieglitz’s photographs so broadly throughout the show seems determined to give him comparable credit for the work that she did, which is startling.
It is true that Stieglitz recognized her talent instantly and arranged the first gallery showing of her work (without her knowledge or consent, incidentally), but his determination to shape the narrative around her work, through his writing in art magazines, pushed her into exploring new subjects so that her work would not be defined by the analysis of others.
Learning that she used to paint cityscapes from the roof of a New York City apartment is a shock—a bit like Bob Dylan going electric. Her cityscapes were the freshest part of the exhibit, as I thought I had a pretty thorough knowledge of her work, but I had never even heard of them before. There is stillness and pulsing life in the work, light radiates from a street lamp like it was the pistil in some of her lilies, with the glow pulsing outwards. Rooftops ripple like her cliffs, with each one showing its own shape and personality.
There is a feeling to her work, a sensibility, which the display notes attribute to synesthesia. Maybe so, as the paintings communicate a deep care and act of close attention that is rare, unless we are seducing someone. You feel as if she has painted her subjects, whether a horse’s skull or a rock face, the way it would want to be portrayed. The attention she paid to the items on her canvas is almost indistinguishable from love, which is why her flower paintings feel so sexual. According to the exhibit notes, she rejected any sexualized interpretation of her work, and stopped painting flowers in order to prevent that interpretation from defining it. And yet attempting to define her work (and to an extent, herself) was what Stieglitz and her other male contemporaries did.
I am not sure any male artist would have nude photographs of themselves by another artist (even one that they were married to) included in a career retrospective of themselves. Putting these photographs in the same room as O’Keeffe’s paintings is a strange, and frankly, demeaning choice. What does seeing the shape of her nude torso add to our appreciation of her paintings?
Other than a prurient interest, it is hard to justify. O’Keeffe rarely painted human subjects except as abstracts in her early charcoal sketches, and to my knowledge never painted herself, so it’s not as if she used her own body as a canvas. Did the Tate feel that her work could not exist independently of her personal relationships? Her talent would have been recognized regardless of who she was married to, and yet you get the sense that Steiglitz’s feelings for her were something she needed to keep a healthy distance from. Why wasn’t the work of the other artists included in one room, separate from hers, if the curators felt a context had to be provided? Why did the curators feel a context had to be provided at all?
This intrusive and unnecessary comparison partially spoils the exhibition, but luckily there are enough treasures on display to make the other works easy to ignore. The first room, where O’Keeffe’s charcoals are displayed, is laid out in homage to 291, the gallery where they were first displayed in 1916, and it’s easy to realize what an immense power and skill she had right from the start. The flower paintings (including the one of two poppies and one of the jimson flower) are in a large space organized as four smaller ones, breaking up the crowds and giving you the time to really focus on these slightly smaller paintings.
O’Keeffe’s ability to capture the light and shadow of shifting moments is best shown in a sequence of paintings of a cliff behind her home – four different versions of the same scene. The green and pink one is the most dramatic for its Gauguin-esque use of unnatural colour, with the warmth and the feeling of the desert still permeating.
The nicest thing about the exhibit was the number of girls under the age of ten sketching the paintings for themselves. Close attention to O’Keeffe’s work is always rewarded at any age, and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to learn how to look.
Featured Image: Pineapple Bud, 1939, oil on canvas