By Ellen Pasternack and Emily Oldham.
Many people think of Georgia O’Keeffe as ‘that artist who paints flowers to look like vulvas’. Judy Chicago and others pick out her 1923 ‘Grey Lines With Black, Blue and Yellow’ as particularly yonic, for example. So we were surprised to learn that not only was this resemblance not deliberate, but the artist adamantly rejected these interpretations throughout her entire career. According to O’Keeffe, the ‘eroticism’ of her work is
something people themselves put into the paintings. They’ve found things that never entered my mind… When people read erotic symbols into my painting, they’re really talking about their own affairs.
This approach to O’Keeffe’s work perhaps says more about the women’s liberation movement and the 21st century’s obsession with sex than it does about O’Keeffe. Worse, it risks reducing this complex, experimental artist to something one-dimensional and pornographic.
The Tate Modern’s 2016 retrospective – exactly a century after her first exhibition – explores less well-known facets of O’Keeffe’s career. Alongside her renowned flower paintings and landscapes from several locations, there are walls dedicated to early abstractions, cityscapes (“Of course, I was told it was an impossible idea – even the men hadn’t done too well with it”, she said of painting New York), still lifes of fruit, carcasses, and Native American kachinas, and late works inspired by views from aeroplanes. With thirteen rooms, the exhibition has space to consider O’Keeffe as a major figure of early twentieth century modernism. What a shame, then, that our most overwhelming impression as we left the gallery was of an artist hemmed in by the expectations others placed upon her because of her sex.
Art in the early 20th century was very much a man’s world. Our suspicion is that the establishment was mildly titillated by the idea of O’Keeffe, a woman, creating art. When Alfred Stieglitz – editor of the avant-garde magazine Camera Work, curator of the 291 gallery in Manhattan, and, after his first marriage dissolved in 1924, O’Keeffe’s husband – was first introduced to her work in 1915 he was said to have exclaimed, “Finally, a woman on paper!” Stieglitz presented O’Keeffe’s work to his avant-garde art circle through an exhibition at his gallery – her first exhibition, and set up without her knowledge or permission. His journals and letters, currently on display at the Tate, highlight his power over O’Keeffe’s reputation; at one point, for instance, he describes O’Keeffe’s “mystical and musical” depictions of “feminine forms”, despite the artworks in question not having any overt connection to the female form whatsoever. Stieglitz’s Interpretation (1919) is a photograph of O’Keeffe’s sculpture Abstraction placed in front of her painting Music, Pink and Blue no.1 to create an image that is erotically suggestive – an implication that O’Keeffe had not intended for either work. As a well-respected figure in the art world, Stieglitz’ responses to O’Keeffe’s art had an impact on how it was initially received and therefore on how it is seen today. It is in no small part due to Stieglitz’s influence that a century of critics downplayed O’Keeffe’s work as ‘lady art’.
O’Keeffe’s early work is abstract, mainly in charcoal, drawing especial inspiration from cubism and Kandinsky, incorporating angular forms and sweeping lines, playing with shape and texture. These works also demonstrate her interest in “the idea that music could be translated into something for the eye”, or chromasthesia (a type of synaesthesia in which sounds evoke an experience of colour). Lines and curves sweep through works like ‘Red and Orange Streak’ (1919) and ‘Blue and Green Music’, mimicking musical notes as they search and fade. O’Keeffe embraces her own experimentalism, giving early charcoal pieces titles like ‘No. 12 Special’ or ‘Special No. 9’. The latter work is particularly beautiful, anticipating the fluid boundaries of her later landscapes. In ‘Special No. 9’, dark, jagged paths – simultaneously earthy and aqueous – cut across a cloud-like texture. (Clouds recur throughout O’Keeffe’s career; they are also the focus of Stieglitz’ 1920s photographic sequence ‘Equivalents’.)
Other landscape pieces are tied to the specific places O’Keeffe visited during her life, and the natural phenomena she saw there. In West Texas, where she worked as an art teacher after graduating, O’Keeffe painted vast canyons and wide open plains (“land like the ocean”); New York City subsequently provided the subject matter for a series of distinctively minimalist cityscapes. In upstate New York she produced over two hundred paintings inspired by the scenery at Lake George, including panoramas, wonderfully sensitive close-ups of natural objects found at the lake, and beautiful abstractions based on the patterns reflected on the water’s surface.
New Mexico – or, as O’Keeffe called it, “the faraway nearby” – supplied expansive desert scenes, as well as the active community surrounding the socialite and modernist patron Mabel Dodge. After 1934 O’Keeffe spent much of her time capturing the colours and cliffs of Ghost Ranch (also in New Mexico), and the surrounding ‘Black Place’ and ‘White Place’. The texture of these pieces is palpable, while the shades of black, white and grey create new subtleties within the intensity of the landscape. No wonder O’Keeffe later turned to large-scale views from aeroplane windows, where she could further explore the intricacies of the sky and clouds. ‘Sky Above Clouds IV’ is especially striking; oval cloud forms span gently out to a faint horizon; without the title, the piece could represent an arctic landscape of ice and water. This vast, extraordinary painting has stayed in our heads long after we left the exhibition, perhaps more than any other work there.
Alongside abstract depictions of place and colour, O’Keeffe sustained an interest in realism. Over the course of her career, she created skilful still lifes of fruit, buildings, and bones. Most famous, though, are her floral paintings, which span from the 1920s to the 1950s, and which gradually become more photographic. This move from semi-abstract forms to concrete still lifes was in part an attempt to undermine the sexual interpretations of her art that had followed her since her earliest days as an artist; disappointingly, the snickering grew even louder instead.
O’Keeffe lamented that few people paid enough attention to appreciate the intricate beauty of flowers, so she magnified them to a more human scale, aiming to “make even busy New Yorkers take the time to see what I see”. She replicates the internal structures with botanical precision to create striking, stylised paintings, so bright and engaging you could almost smell their perfume. Jimson Weed/White Flower no. 1 (1932), used as the title piece for this exhibition, is a particularly mesmerising example. Against a verdant background, a single bloom is presented face on to the viewer. Five luminous white petals spiral inward, drawing the eye towards the centre of the flower, where four delicate anthers seem to dance in a ring. The slightly hypnotic effect is particularly apt as the plant represented, Datura stramonium (‘Devil’s Snare’), is a hallucinogen, and is traditionally used by indigenous peoples in the South-Western US for spiritual purposes – a fact O’Keeffe, being interested in both the natural world and Native American cultures, may well have been aware of while painting.
All in all, this exhibition was a thoroughly enjoyable and intriguing introduction to the sheer variety of art produced by this major figure of 20th century modernism. Yet an undue amount of attention was given to the work of Alfred Stieglitz as O’Keeffe’s husband and sometimes inspiration. Entire walls were devoted to his photography – including multiple closely cropped, faceless shots of O’Keeffe’s breasts and genitals. It is difficult in the extreme to imagine a celebrated male artist having photographs of his genitals on display at his centenary exhibition. Sadly, it seems the Guerilla Girls were right: yes, a woman does have to be naked to get into the Tate Modern, even if that woman is the respected and successful artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
The Tate Modern’s Georgia O’Keeffe Centenary Retrospective is open to the public until 30th October, 2016.
Guerilla Girls, ‘Do Women Have To Be Naked To Get Into the Met. Museum?’ (1989), http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/guerrilla-girls-do-women-have-to-be-naked-to-get-into-the-met-museum-p78793