Showing at the Tate Modern until 30th October is an exhibition of prolific artist Georgia O’Keeffe’s diverse life work. O’Keeffe’s practice spanned both figurative paintings of land and cityscapes, and abstracted, close up portrayals of the natural world, including bones, flowers, and cultural motifs. The pieces shown at the Tate Modern feature over one hundred of O’Keeffe’s ground-breaking paintings and drawings, and, as none of her work is held in UK collections, this is a unique opportunity to see her work outside of America.
Above: Early No. 2, No. 12 Special, Special No. 9
Spread throughout a winding series of rooms in the Tate Modern, it is easy to lose oneself when exploring the legacies O’Keeffe has left artists working today. However, the curation of this exhibition is innovative in its layout: upon entering the show one is transported to a different period in time with the interior of the first room mirroring Gallery 291 where O’Keeffe first had her work exhibited in 1916. From here, each room cleverly displays her paintings, and work in other media, in a chronological format, emphasising how her work has evolved over the course and events of her life.
Above: Sunrise, Blue Hill No. II, Pink and Blue Mountain
“I have things in my head that are not like what anyone has taught me – shapes and ideas so near to me… I decided to start anew – to strip away what I had been taught”
The first room is devoted to O’Keeffe’s early work, when the artist declared a wish not to work in colour until it was impossible to achieve what she wanted in black and white, and sets the scene by showing her revolutionary, gestural charcoal drawings and several photographs of her work in situ at Gallery 291. From here, the exhibition-goer is inspired to journey through the gallery to discover how her work developed from these early years in the field of abstraction to more recent large scale paintings of the sixties and seventies.
O’Keeffe described her work in the 1910s as relating to emotional experience rather than a particular physical subject, often drawing and painting using music or memories of nature and landscapes, particularly those of the Texan plains where she worked as an art teacher, as her stimuli. Her choice not to depict a version of reality which viewers will be familiar with resulted in the production of many suggestive and beautifully ambiguous compositions which defy the rules and rigid structures previously set by traditional representational painting and drawing practices.
Above: Music – Pink and Blue No. 2 & Blue and Green Music
“The idea that music could be translated into something for the eye”
A further source of inspiration within O’Keeffe’s work was abstract painter and art theorist, Wassily Kandinsky’s The Art of Spiritual Harmony. Published in 1914, this text detailed Kandinsky’s investigation of synaesthesia in art; in his theoretical findings he wrote of the power of the auditory to influence what the artist sees and that of the visual to influence what one hears, in turn creating a direct link between such creative disciplines as music and painting. Upon O’Keeffe’s work this had a profound impact; her enthusiasm for music and her newfound use of vibrant colour fused together to produce such paintings as Music – Pink and Blue No.1 (shown above) – here the artist’s approach to abstraction is arguably systematic, using soundwaves as a sensory stimulus to determine which colours, forms, lines, movements and tonal qualities to produce.
Above: Abstraction – White Rose, Abstraction Blue, Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow
“I paint because colour is a significant language to me”
In the late 1920s, O’Keeffe received much critical attention on the supposedly sexual and phallic content of her abstracts, she whole-heartedly denied these analyses of her work, arguing that they were due only to her status as a ‘female artist’. From this point, O’Keeffe began to work in a more representational style, making the subject of her paintings more obvious and readable to the viewer. The artist’s subjects at this point were largely found in the ever-changing architectural skyline her new home, New York, where she lived with her partner, Alfred Stieglitz, whose work as a photographic artist features in this exhibition, too.
Stieglitz’s photography also spans the field of abstraction. His images, especially those in his Equivalents series, abstract directly from reality, aiming to show the power and technical abilities of photography by presenting the viewer with everyday subjects and scenes taken out of context or captured from a zoomed in perspective. Through his practice, Stieglitz aims to instate photography as an art form in its own right, not merely a way of documenting and recording visual information. In many ways, O’Keeffe’s work is echoed in Stieglitz’s and vice versa, and in the curation of this exhibition this parallel is highlighted in the creative directions the two followed and the inspirations they derived from each other’s practice.
Above: Equivalents, Alfred Stieglitz
Away from the vast plains of Texas and Columbia, O’Keeffe’s work changed dramatically in the starkly contrasting urban environment of New York. Here O’Keeffe chose instead to paint the city, often incorporating the views from her thirtieth floor apartment in her unique depictions of it, delighting in the fresh perspectives this provided and the stunning array of architectural landmarks to be seen from all angles.
“Today the city is something bigger, grander, more complex than ever before in history”
Above: New York Street with Moon, New York Night, Ritz Tower, Night
O’Keeffe also began painting and drawing scenes from upstate New York, in particular, Lake George where she renewed her focus on abstraction, creating several compositions which explore the natural forms she found here, and their characteristic colours, shapes and patterns as each changes with the seasons. These appear almost like bleeding inks in their simplification of O’Keeffe’s chosen subjects, reducing the components down to basic forms.
Above: Pool in The Woods, Lake George, From the Lake, No. 3, From the Lake, No. 1
The exhibition continues by showing O’Keeffe’s more familiar work, including several intensely colourful paintings of flowers and still lifes. O’Keeffe used a close up viewpoint to paint her chosen flowers, and during the late 1920s did so in a more realistic and detailed style, rather than simplifying the blooming forms and in turn making the identity of the subject matter ambiguous. Again, this return back to realism is perhaps a result of earlier attention from critics regarding the sexual connotations perceived in her paintings.
Above: Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, White Iris, Oriental Poppies
“When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home… I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it”
After the Wall Street Crash of 1929, O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico and fell in love with the landscape and community here. She explored the rural environment and its architecture, religious influences and cultural diversity. It was here she first encountered the elegant, sun-bleached bones which also feature in many paintings, contrasting the joyous colour and life represented by her floral subjects with this new, perhaps slightly ominous, focus on bones, specifically skulls, horns, antlers and other skeletal animal remains.
Above: Black Cross with Stars and Blue & Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico
O’Keeffe’s juxtaposition of life and death is a particularly iconic and powerful artistic legacy, and highlights the role of contrast within her diverse practice. The artist’s work has changed significantly throughout her career, but contrast and drama have been present throughout: the contrast of life and death, black and white and full colour, urban cityscapes and rural landscapes, and close up abstractions of nature and distant vantage points can all be found within this exciting exhibition.
Above: Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettia, My Front Yard, Summer, Black Hills with Cedar
“Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant. It is what I have done with where I have been that should be of interest”
Above: Pelvis Series, Red with Yellow & Pelvis I
Moving into the last few rooms, O’Keeffe’s work continues to explore abstraction after finding new inspiration when travelling by aeroplane. Viewing the clouds from above presented O’Keeffe with a fresh perspective on the space and land around her, and she chose to paint from these newly encountered scenes and forms in a simplified, semi-abstract way. In painting these new ‘skyscapes’, the artist maintained her signature approach, whereby the physical output of this work was rooted in a direct experience of the landscape and her emotional approach to it.
Above: Sky Above the Clouds III
Here at Syndicut, we have been inspired by the work of ground-breaking artist Georgia O’Keeffe and highly recommend a visit to this landmark exhibition for a unique opportunity to see such a broad range of her beautiful work!