Catch it while you can:
Georgia O’Keeffe. Tate Modern, 6 July – 30 October 2016.
Marking 100 years since Georgia O’Keeffe’s first show at the ‘291’ gallery in New York, this exhibition is a rare display of her paintings in the UK and demonstrates the breadth of her career from the 1910s to the 1960s. Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) became an American icon and a key figure in the modernist movement in the United States. Throughout the last century several of O’Keeffe’s paintings have been associated with erotic imagery and this is what many people know her for, yet this was not her intention and it frustrated her greatly. This retrospective exhibition at the Tate aims to ‘dispel the cliches that persist about O’Keeffe’s painting,’ instead concentrating on and emphasising the pioneering nature of her work.
The exhibition is extensive, bringing together over 100 works, some of her most important and iconic. With no works by O’Keeffe in UK public collections this is definitely an exhibition to catch in its final couple of weeks. Laid out over 13 rooms, in chronological order and divided into sections, the exhibition delves into her long career. O’Keeffe’s story is told with the addition of photographs by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz. They parallel her works and provide a deeper look into her life, her circle and her influences. Each room has a distinctive theme; from her beginnings in ‘The Early Years and ‘291” and ‘New York Cityscapes’ to her later years in ‘Late Abstractions and Skyscapes’. As a result the exhibition is easy to follow and can be appreciated by all audiences as I witnessed in the ‘Flowers and Still Life’ room. A little girl sat beneath the iconic ‘Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1, 1932’ (the most expensive painting by a female artist ever sold at auction). She was colouring her own version of the painting, pencil crayons scattered on her lap, completely enthralled with matching the greens and blues perfectly. A little girl clearly inspired by the work and legacy of O’Keeffe.
During her earlier years, as a female artist, critical response was focused on her gender and the feminine qualities and erotic imagery that could be found in her paintings. Again and again the exhibition makes clear that her paintings were never intended to be interpreted in that way. The exhibition delves into the different avenues she took in her works and reveals how they drastically changed throughout her lifetime; from her early pieces which drew inspiration from music and synaesthesia (the stimulation of one sense by another), to her flower paintings to her desert landscapes. Each room is like an exhibition in itself, a fresh beginning, a new outlook, keeping your attention, yet there is continuity in the chronological order of the works. The exhibition makes startlingly clear that O’Keeffe should be remembered for much more than her famous flower paintings and the associations of her work with erotic imagery. The range of pieces displayed demonstrates her love for the American landscape, particularly in New Mexico and also shows her impressive adaptability and the variety of inspirations which made her one of the most prolific American painters of her time.
It is the final room, which displays some of O’Keeffe’s later and lesser known works, the ‘Skyscapes’, which I found most impactful. These pieces are inspired by views from aeroplane windows, of clouds and rivers below. By showing that she painted up until the days of flying on planes in the 1960s, this room makes very evident the extraordinary length of O’Keeffe’s career since her first show in 1916 in New York City. This room also shows that O’Keeffe continued to develop her depiction of the American landscape and her relationship and experience of it.
The exhibition demonstrates O’Keeffe’s important role in American modernism and marks a great start to the new larger Tate after its recent extension. This is a rare chance to see O’Keeffe’s work in the UK, so make the most of the opportunity if you can. Ending 30 October 2016.