Georgia O’Keeffe lived for nearly a century, from 1887 to 1986, and painted the landscape of America for most of it. Thus the large-scale exhibition of her work at the Tate Modern affords a staggering sweep of subjects across place and time. Walking through with a friend who had recently moved from London to Dallas, Texas, we talked about the strange fractures running through American identity, from the frenetic pace of its vacation-less cities to the ‘bigness’ of its cars, malls, and landscapes. We were trying to join Georgia O’Keeffe in her grand project: to define and capture the essence of what she called “that great American thing.”
O’Keeffe was a great American painter because of her extraordinary receptivity to the environments in which she found herself. At one moment dark geometrical lines and glowing moons hang amidst the skyscrapers of early New York City in 1920s; at another, soothing and rounded shapes in purple and blue hues swim around Lake George. She puts one in mind, at such moments, of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transcendentalist philosophy regarding the experience of nature in America: “I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me.” An eye that is retentive, not reflective, she takes the landscape into herself and paints what is in front of her; there is something Zen about the fact that the landscapes she paints are, it would seem, not metaphorical or symbolic. Even when she does paint objects that might, in the hands of others, be heavily laden with symbolic significance, like the bones of Horse’s Skull on Blue (1930), she crops or zooms until they are returned to mere form.
The revelation offered by this exhibition is of the full view of O’Keeffe as the most significant landscape painter of 20th century America. The intention espoused by the curator, Tanya Barson, was to challenge the dogmatically prevalent reading of O’Keeffe – and one with which I arrived at this exhibition pre-armed – as ‘that flower-vagina artist’. This approach was advanced by her promoter and then husband, Alfred Stieglitz, as a psychoanalytical reading in 1919, then resurrected by feminists in the 1970s as a statement of empowerment. It’s part of its strangeness that it was vociferously denied by O’Keeffe herself: “Men put me down as the best woman painter…I think I’m one of the best painters.” How irritating, as a groundbreaking female artist, to have your work read as a one-note statement throughout your life, as essentially more ‘female’ than ‘art’. There is no denying that in this exhibition, there are a handful of paintings that seem to lean towards the genital – the pink slit of Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow (1923) in the first room, for instance, or the zoomed in stamens of flowers such as Lavender Iris (1951), but this ignores a huge swathe of her work. And aren’t all flowers genuinely quite genital? It’s not a Rorschach Test if it looks just like a pussy anyway.
The early paintings filling the first rooms are exquisitely beautiful. Her aim here is more transformative of the land: she tries to capture the experience of synesthesia, transmuting music and moods into scenes. Music – Pink and Blue No 1 (1919) and Blue and Green Music (1919-20) are joyful to look at, abstracted washes of colour. Then, around the same time as painting New York, she paints the flowers around Lake George where she stayed with Stieglitz, engaging with these floral subjects with painterly techniques reminiscent of photography, zooming in on details and enlarging tiny petals to fill huge canvases. It was one of these paintings, Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1 (1932), which recently broke records by selling for $44.4 million – the highest price ever realised for a work of art by a woman – but their realism was less interesting to me than her vision of the landscapes.
O’Keeffe’s discovery in New Mexico of the ‘Black Place’, shortly followed by the ‘White Place’, furnished her with two of her most painted subjects. Both natural limestone formations, they are a set of valleys, cliffs and peaks that she painted over and over in different lights, camping by them to paint them from her car or working later from memory. Her painting here is all flat layers: there are no visible brush strokes, no thick textures of paint. She abstracts the same shapes to find new expressions within them and you can see the distinctive crack in the valleys change from the gentle elephantine greys of Black Place I (1941) to the angry yellow crack amidst the black and red of Black Place II (1944). Another motif begins to emerge in her Pelvis (1943-45) series, where she holds animal remains up to the sky, painting the vivid blue seen through the hole through the bleached white bone. Much like her flowers, she zooms in on certain parts and thus chooses and changes the shapes that make it onto the canvas. Many of her paintings have this obsession with apertures and openings through which to see the world: she painted the door to her patio over twenty times.
Once again peeping through an opening, the most impressive pieces of her later work are the views she saw from the plane windows flying back and forth between New Mexico and the comparative glitz of New York. She paints the atmosphere and riverbeds she sees below her in works like Sky Above Clouds IV (1956), which has the scudding clouds as flat white oblongs receding into an endless horizon. It feels unique to see the view so often photographed by travelers put in paint; it’s a reminder of the decades of drastic global change to which this artist bore witness.
But in one substantial way O’Keeffe feels uniquely contemporary: her grasp of her own image making. Amidst her works this exhibition is peppered with photographs taken of O’Keeffe; stern and starkly dressed in black with a wide brimmed hat against a wild landscape; or on the back of a car filled with Navajo rugs; or posing nude for Steiglitz; or in a polaroid for Andy Warhol. Even from her early years, O’Keeffe knew the value of controlling her own personal aesthetic, in a way that feels made for our image-saturated age. As America continues to shake with paroxysm over quite what and who it wants to be, O’Keeffe’s star will doubtless continue to rise over that strange and strangely barren land of plenty.
Adults £19; £17 concessions.