Georgia O’Keeffe, Tate Modern – OCA Study Visit 10.9.16

A most enjoyable study visit to this show – a rare opportunity to see O’Keeffe’s work in the UK – with students from a number of OCA disciplines, but mainly drawing and painting. It was instructive to have this different perspective, although it would probably have been good to have a few more photographers in attendance too. There are several references to the importance of modernist photography for O’Keeffe and work by Stieglitz, Strand, Adams and others is featured alongside the paintings and pastel and charcoal drawings.

Seeing this work ‘in the flesh’ was a key highlight of the visit. I have been familiar with her work for my whole life but to be able to get up close and see the delicacy of the brushstrokes and understand the size and scale was a real treat and an experience that is not easy to describe here. A strong reminder though that reproductions are a poor substitute, especially for paintings.

A major learning for me was how fine the line can be between representing something and abstraction. Things can be highly simplified but still recognisable.  Of course, all images are a form of abstraction as elements are missing (such as a 360 perspective, scent etc) but O’Keeffe was a true genius in transforming everyday subject matter with her paintbrush and her exceptional eye for radical cropping.

Curation

Generally I thought this was excellent with just the right amount of captioning and historical/geographical context. It took me about 90 minutes to see everything and although it was busy there was a good flow of visitors which suggested that all the work was of interest, rather than bottlenecking by the more well-known works [eg the Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 (1932) – the most expensive painting by a female artist sold at auction]. There were a lot less flowers than I expected, for which I was grateful.

I also enjoyed seeing the photographs interspersed with the paintings. I felt it added context and interest. My single gripe is that I felt the ‘torso’ photographs taken by Stieglitz were completely unnecessary and rather demeaning.  I would be interested to understand what was the rationale behind this as I don’t quite see what images of the artist’s bare boobs (taken around 1918-19) added to the show.

It seems strange when the Tate team are providing this kind of PR:

Borchardt-Hume said the decision to host a major O’Keeffe retrospective also came from an awareness that the contribution of women to 20th-century art was “still at risk of being overshadowed by men”.

“When it comes to the contribution of women, we have made it a task to test ourselves much more vigorously when we look at the history of art,” he said.

“O’Keeffe was very assertive as a woman but was always very keen to assert that she was an important artist, not just an important female artist.”  [1]

Although generally well received, there have been some negative responses to the show: “The inclusion of photography, while interesting, again shows a lack of confidence by the institution to let a singular medium prevail.” [2]

“The first image at Tate Modern, in fact, is not by O’Keeffe but a close-up of her fierce beauty by Stieglitz. No matter that she posed for these photographs, and even worked on their editing and printing, this still seems pretty regressive. It is some time before you get to any of her works.”

This review goes on to say: “… after such a long wait for a British retrospective, this one is peculiarly disappointing, not least because it is padded out with numerous photographs and flaccid paintings.” [3]

Recurring shapes and motifs

O’Keeffe made shapes and lines that represented emotions visually, sometimes “long after the situations” e.g a kiss, and also tried to represent music. 

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Blue and Green Music, 1919-21

O’K seems to have become more obsessed with returning to the same motifs later life as is evident with her paintings of the ‘White Place’ and the ‘Black Place’. Other motifs included horns, skulls, pelvis bones, cottonwood trees and the patio of her house at Abiquiú.

Colour

“I paint because color is a significant language to me.” [4]

O’K was very interested in synaesthesia and chromesthesia and some of her paintings explore the relationship of shapes and form to music, colour and composition.  Colours are often mentioned in the titles of the paintings (eg Red and Orange Streak, 1919). She was clearly very attracted to the colours of the Kachina dolls, which were Native American teaching tools for young children, carved from cotton wood trees. There was some interesting text accompanying these paintings about how the Navajo perceived male and female colours differently from immigrant Americans eg pink being associated with men.

Scale

This is clearly an important element of O’K’s work.  Her tutor Arthur Wesley Dow had told her that painting was about “filling space in a beautiful way” and I think maybe many of her flower paintings were an experimentation in how far she could push the limits of this.

In the blurb from the show: “Nobody sees a flower – really – it is so small – we haven’t time – and to see takes time… So I said to myself – I’ll paint what I see – what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it – I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers…”

Influences

It is well known that G O’K was a huge fan of Kandinsky and that she loved his text The Art of Spiritual Harmony.  She was also very inspired by her friend Paul Strand, a pioneer in modernism. His photographic vision helped her to see in flattened 2D and the resulting abstraction is a vital element throughout her career. She actually claims to see the world “like a photographer”, framing imaginary photographs in her head.  Light and shade is used decoratively and some of the early urban landscape work has a very art deco feel reminiscent of Charles Sheeler and Tamara de Lempicka.

We can also see the influence of Cezanne, Cubism (particularly evident in some of her still life work) and the European avant-garde but she remains resolutely American in her choice of subject matter.

The main inspiration for O’K seems to be place. Her obsession with where she settled is palpable and is the backbone of her work.  “When I got to New Mexico that was mine.  As soon as I saw it that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted me exactly.” (from the Tate booklet about the exhibition).  The horns and the skulls have become part of the iconography of the American South West.

Response to her critics

G O’K did not hide her frustrations with critics and the public. The show text says that response to her work “emphasised O’Keeffe’s identity as a woman artist and attributed essential feminine qualities to her work, often hinting heavily at erotic content. Stieglitz was a major source for such attitudes and supported them by introducing psychoanalytic interpretations of her paintings. Frustrated with this limited view, O’Keeffe began to transform her style toward more realism…”  Firstly, Stieglitz was a bit of a jerk and secondly, I cannot help wondering what her work would have been like if she had worked completely unknown until much later in life.

“When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.”

Feminism

This is a huge and complicated issue with regards to G O’K and something that I may explore more later.  Many people have tried to interpret her work with their own agendas. It has been well-documented that Stieglitz (the jerk) did this of course.  Some feminists, such as Judy Chicago, have also praised her for the use of feminist iconography. O’K denied that this was her intention and always stressed that she was an artist as opposed to being a woman artist. [5]

She was clearly strong and independent (“astonishingly aggressive” according to Joan Didion [6]). It seems that her resistance to being dominated by Stieglitz held great fascination for him.  She was never reducible to one of his ‘equivalents’. There are lots of rumours that O’Keeffe had affairs with women (including Paul Strand’s wife Beck who, weirdly, rather looks like O’Keeffe).

Inspiration/ideas to steal

“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… I began with charcoal and paper and decided not to use any other colour until it was impossible to do what I wanted to do in black and white.”  This tightly focused approach seems like it would be excellent for rebooting or inspiration for a particular project.

I am interested in the idea of pushing the limits of abstraction. In some ways this much more difficult with photography due the omnipresence of that pesky referent but definitely worth pursuing.

In 1912, Stieglitz published two ‘word portraits’ by Gertrude Stein. G O’K produced a number of ‘indirect portraits’, which I love, of her husband such as this which alludes to the red lining of his coat:

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Blue and Green Music, 1919-21

Some of Stieglitz’s night photographs of New York are great examples of how darkness can create the abstraction.  The actual print of this image is much darker in reality and has a beauty and richness totally lacking here:

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Blue and Green Music, 1919-21

General points of interest

G O’K stated that she lost all interest in painting New York after 1929 when the onset of the Great Depression caused the disappearance of the Utopian spirit of the city.

She uses a noticeably different palette in upstate New York compared with the Santa Fe images.

My favourite image was Lake George Barns, 1926. The simplicity, the almost Nordic aesthetic, the perfect amount of red:

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It seems that Paul Strand was in love with O’K but was drafted into the army in 1918.  According to Geoff Dyer on the Ongoing Moment, “When he returned to New York a year later Stieglitz and O’Keeffe were settled as a couple and a creative partnership.”  (Dyer, 2012). I wonder how O’K’s work would have developed had she married Paul Strand instead of the always dominant and ‘absorbing’ Stieglitz.

O’K repeatedly painted the Cerro Pedernal visible from the Ghost Ranch and said : “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” I don’t believe in any gods but I love this idea of such a strong connection with a place and a desire for ownership, mediated by looking, seeing and making art.

Some of the images of the ‘Black Place’ are very bleak. Apart from the fact that O’K was working in very difficult conditions for some of this work, the paintings also may reflect her awareness of WW2 and its impact around the globe.

None of the paintings are signed.

In the 50s and 60s, O’K was privileged to be able to take aeroplane journeys over her beloved New Mexico and this took her abstractions to a new level as elements of the landscape stood out as resonant shapes to her. This painting, which looks a bit like a musical note to me, is the line of a road (or possibly a river?) seen from the sky.

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I am not sure I can ever feel the same about New Mexico having seen Breaking Bad.

The Tate booklet notes refer to how O’K’s late abstractions and skyscapes “reveal her awareness of contemporary abstract painting, particularly colour field painting, then dominating American art.”  I had to Google ‘colour field painting’ but now that I know what it is, I like it!  Would be interesting to try to create a series of photographs inspired by that style.

Bryan Eccleshall was a superb tutor for the visit. His enthusiasm was infectious and he really encouraged us to think laterally about our practice. A key area of interest was the question of where the tension lies in O’K’s work.  From Bryan’s follow up blog post: “If all the elements of a work point, metaphorically, in the same direction then it becomes kitsch. Think about Socialist Realism which has a muscularity in scale, size, and subject matter. Nothing undercuts or critiques an ideological position. In O’Keeffe’s work we see decoration and design run counter to the brutal landscapes and scale stand in tension with size. This is what draws an audience back to the work again and again. There’s something here that can’t be pinned down.”

Other things discussed over coffee included: what would Warhol be doing if he were alive today; how Kraftwerk was a conceptual copy of the Beach Boys; how repetition can be pushed far and hard; the radical abstraction of Lowry’s seascapes; how artists notice things and make connections and then communicate the connections via their art and a load of other fascinating things.

All in all, a brilliant day and one I feel has helped my practice.

References

  1. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/mar/01/georgia-okeeffe-show-at-tate-modern-to-challenge-outdated-views-of-artist
  2. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/reviews/georgia-okeeffe-tate-modern-review-an-extraordinary-show-long-overdue-a7122306.html
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/jul/10/georgia-okeefe-review-tate-modern-retrospective
  4. https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/2015/09/25/okeeffes-letters-from-india/
  5. http://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/art/articles/2014/february/05/what-do-you-see-in-georgia-okeeffes-flowers/
  6. Dyer, G. (2012) The ongoing moment: A book about photographs. Edinburgh: Canongate Books.
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