Friday, 28 October 2016

Georgia O'Keeffe: still life at Tate

Tate Modern's cold main entry, the Turbine Hall, is in my opinion not London's best venue, but entering the exhibition upstairs in the galleries, you forget where you are, quickly transported into another world and time. Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1986) is one of the USA's most influential artists: she changed the course of traditional still life with her use of wild colour, most famously depicting large flowers, and contributed to the start of a new movement in art history—modernism. As an artist whose work isn't held by any collections in the UK, Tate Modern's Georgia O'Keeffe brings together an impressive range of works from across the USA, opening with a room of her small early charcoal drawings, and photographs of the artist in her youth taken by her husband Alfred Stieglitz. This sets the tone—the show is a personal social history of one artist, within the context of marriage, friends, landscapes, and, of course, flowers. The exhibition celebrates 100 years of her work, and is a great illustration of the value that clever curation and context can add to appreciation of art.
One of the opening panels states Georgia O'Keeffe's strong denial of the eroticism of her paintings: “when people read erotic symbols into my paintings they're really talking about their own affairs”. By placing this quote at the very start, O'Keeffe's position is clear and the sexual associations that some critics and audiences see in her work are set aside. A youthful O'Keeffe and her husband's circle are illustrated by Stieglitz's photo portraits. They could be contemporary; they show fantastic and timeless faces, each with an eccentricity that is casually captured. As O'Keeffe ages across the portraits throughout the show, she looks increasingly fabulous—a strong, determined woman. Theatrical, she plays to the camera, just as the curator plays to the audience by mixing up the media on display. The placement of the early photos is so clever, because it sets the tone for the artist's later independence and strength of character. As well as social context, Stieglitz influenced the directions of O'Keeffe's work, and bringing him into the show from the beginning gives a constant reference point.
As the show moves into cityscapes of New York and the Hudson River, once again photos complement the paintings. Some of her iconic paintings are on display such as Jimson Weed (1936), commissioned by cosmetics magnate Elizabeth Arden, and famously fetching over US$44 million at auction in 2014. A move to New Mexico in the 1940s brought a change to O'Keeffe's style and subjects. The colours she started to use were sublime shades of teal, blue, green, and puffy cloudy pinks. As well as these colours, she explored black and white, and went on to paint a whole series inspired by bones—quite literally painting after painting of dried out white bones and carcases against various striking backgrounds. She explained that she used bones as a lens through which to see the world: reflecting the relationship between solid and void, blue sky and white bone. The sense of place continues to come through, as her years in New Mexico were dominated by the landscapes and ochres. You can almost see O'Keeffe journey through places as a metaphor for life—always travelling forward and through different phases.
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Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II (1930)
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/ DACS, London
Since 1988, Nicholas Serota's directorship of Tate has led to exhibitions that perpetuate the exclusivity of art, and don't add much in the way of interpretation, but this institutionally co-curated show has taken a different approach, which is far more interesting and insightful. It's really a very beautiful exhibition, and the added context of photography and other people's work is a successful digression for Tate to have made, and one I hope they repeat in future.
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Georgia O'Keeffe, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932)/Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA Photography by Edward C Robison III © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London