Friday, 26 August 2016

Georgia O’Keeffe, Tate Modern, London (6 July-30 October 2016)

From the Faraway Nearby (1937)

If, like me, you thought you knew what to expect from an exhibition of work by Georgia O’Keeffe (flowers shaped liked vaginas, animal bones and deserts), the first two of the thirteen rooms in Tate Modern’s retrospective of the artist will come as an unexpected surprise and are alone worth the price of the admission.  They concentrate on O’Keeffe’s early mature works, beautiful minimal abstract works which demonstrate how skilful the artist was with handling colour even at the beginning of her career.  The perception of heat emitting from Red and Orange Streak (1919) is simple, yet stunning and contrasted effortlessly against the cool white tones of Abstraction (1921), which is equally sublime. 

Red and Orange Streak (1919)

Abstraction (1921)

Featuring more than 100 works, this is the largest ever exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe  (1887-1986) held in the United Kingdom.  Regarded as a giant of American 20th-century modernism, with the inclusion of more of her early (and later) work than those “iconic” flower paintings, this show seeks to redress widely held interpretations (from male art critics of the time and then later re-appropriated and celebrated by some feminist artists) that such paintings were depictions of female genitalia, interpretations which the artist always refuted.  The curatorial decision to show more works from the rest of her oeuvre in order to demonstrate that O’Keefe had far more to offer as an artist than this one interpretation, is a clever one and makes this exhibition far more interesting and engaging than I was expecting it to be.  The Cubist-inspired abstract paintings such as Line and Curve (1927) displayed in Room 2 is one of many examples of how O’Keeffe tried to shake of such essentialist views about her work, from the outset of her career. 


Top: Line and Curve (1927)  Bottom: Radiator Building Night New York (1927)

Between 1924-1929 O’Keeffe painted quintessential Art Deco views of New York, but for me these appear too stylised and stilted compared to the more organic and free-flowing abstractions of the paintings she made during the same period when she holidayed at Lake George in upstate New York.  With works such as From the Lake No 3 and From the Lake No 1 (both 1924), both O’Keeffe’s brushwork and colour palette are emancipated.

Left: From the Lake No 3 (1924)  Right: From the Lake No 1 (1924)

The artist’s colour palette changed once more, back from warm to cool, when she made her fist extended visit to New Mexico in 1929.  For O’Keeffe the desert landscapes, discarded animal bones and skulls she discovered became her true iconography, and it this body of work which positions her as a foundational figure in the history of American modernism.
What struck me most about this exhibition was not only how strong and capable O’Keeffe’s late work was (something which in my opinion rarely occurs as an artist ages), but also how contemporary these later canvases appear.  Work such as Front of the River – Pale (1959) and It was Blue and Green (1960), painted when the artist was in her seventies, could easily hang among landscapes by emerging artists today and not look remotely out of place.

Left:  Front of the River - Pale (1959)  Right:  Blue and Green (1960)

Georgia O’Keeffe’s career spanned more than seven decades.  The work included in Tate Modern’s exhibition aims to present a view which emphasises the pioneering nature of her career rather than the clichés it has previously attracted.  I think such clichés will always remain, but this exhibition has definitely provided a platform from which to appreciate O’Keeffe with fresh eyes and wider expectations.

Sky Above the Clouds III / Above the Clouds III (1963)

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