Georgia O’Keeffe radically broke from tradition and this summer the Tate celebrates the artist and pioneer of American abstraction that remains absent from British collections in an enthralling retrospective. The exhibition marks the centenary of O’Keeffe’s first show at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, presenting themes of the private, erotic and American landscape in work spanning across six decades from 1910 to 1960.
From an early age, O’Keeffe decided that she wasn’t going to spend her time doing the norm; “doing what’s already been done.” Her works Early Abstraction and No.12 Special come from a series of charcoal drawings that caught the attention of photographer, modernist and soon to be partner, Alfred Stieglitz. But it was within her formative years that she displayed a quixotically skilful handling of colour, which she later became synonymous for.
The hypnotic lines of Grey Blue & Black – Pink Circle and Music – Pink and Blue that move to a hidden rhythm, explore the idea that music can be visual. They dictate the importance of abstraction in O’Keeffe’s work and how she took inspiration from a multitude of sensory stimuli. Such a revolutionary idea is credited to O’Keeffe’s study of Arthur Wesley Dow and her years as a music teacher. There is also the much-discussed (but self-denied by O’Keeffe) feminine and erotic quality to these paintings.
Flower Abstraction resembles both a strikingly natural symbol of the female reproductive organs and fresh flowers. The two meanings are interchangeable, argues art critic Linda Nochlin, upsetting the uneasy boundaries between reality and perception. In the overarching plan of Mother Nature surely the idea of the reproductive organs of a flower are not too far removed from those of a human, and by denial of subject perhaps O’Keeffe was colluding to this theme with a hint of subtlety, or even irony.
After receiving O’Keeffe’s charcoal drawings, Stieglitz immediately displayed the works on the walls of his New York gallery. A year later, he put on her first solo show. It was 1918, the start of their relationship and the year they moved in together. Stieglitz had wanted to create a visual diary of someone’s life and found a willing model in O’Keeffe. The result was a collection of 100 intimate photographs where his model moves from protege to muse to wife. Portraits of her hands display a fascination with her vehicle of expression. They show content where her face remains aloof. Full frontal nudes exhibit uneven breasts, unshaven armpits and a delicately feminine torso. The photographs are surrounded by pictures of their inner circle of friends – the artists, writers and cultural figures of the new American avant-garde.
A language of American modernism took form as Stieglitz and O’Keeffe took on the same subjects. But where the former would use photography, the latter drew and painted a sinister New York from an American Place where towering buildings occupy the dark skyline. At the heart of her work was a desire to define American cultural identity. Within literature and history, scholars were busy finding the “Great American Thing”.
O’Keeffe found it in New Mexico. What began as a place to soul search, in 1929 became a space to find a unique voice outside of Stieglitz as the two lived apart. Like those early abstractions, she explored a new territory using the dry landscape and regional architecture as subject matter. To O’Keeffe, the skull of a ram, haunting though it may be, is now where her identity and nationhood lay.
Throughout O’Keeffe’s career, a shift in location resulted in new subject matter. Finally settling in New Mexico in 1949, three years after Stieglitz’s death, resulted in My Last Door and Sky Above the Clouds IV, where the has artist created works of pure abstraction. It is difficult in the later years to forget the parallels between the work of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz – here she is presented as an imitation, albeit strong, of her male counterpart.
O’Keeffe’s gender has long stood in front of her art. She holds the record for most expensive female artist at auction, and has been the go to woman for feminist-critiquing art historians for decades. Writing to Eleanor Roosevelt in 1924, O’Keeffe avidly fought to be an equal to her male peers. With no examples of her work in British museums, the Tate (who throughout never refer to her as a “female artist”) is re-evaluating the importance of the artist – not just a female painter discussing female themes, but as an accomplished artist in her own right outside of gender politics, ranked equal among her greatest peers of the 21st century.
Perhaps art history still has a long way to go until female artist's gender isn't scrutinised in their art as much as males – but at the same time the fact can't be ignored that these women were in the minority as professional artists and the study of that on their conscious shouldn't be denied. It's a complex web that needs carefully untangling over a long time – but the Tate have at excelled at starting.
By Rhianne Sinclair-Phillips
Georgia O'Keeffe at Tate Modern, until 30 October 2016