Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986
Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 1932
Oil paint on canvas48 x 40 inches
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA
Photography by Edward C. Robison III
© 2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London
at Tate Modern
Until 30th October 2016
I will put my hand up and admit that I thought Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was just that artist who painted flowers. But a deplorable lack of awareness about O’Keeffe’s work on this side of the pond might at least be slightly excusable because, astonishingly, there are zero works by this great American modernist painter in UK public collections.
Let’s be clear from the start, if you love O’Keeffe’s flower paintings and you come to this show at Tate Modern to see them, then never fear, the expected horticultural masterpieces are there. Witness the beautiful lush pastels of White Iris (1930) and the glorious deep reds of Oriental Poppies (1927) but the star of the show is Georgia O’Keeffe’s iconic Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 1932 on loan for the exhibition from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, famous for being the most expensive painting by a woman artist ever sold at auction.
Detail from Georgia O’Keeffe’s White Iris (1930)
But alongside the flowers there are a huge number of other works, both figurative and abstract, from O’Keeffe’s long, and unexpectedly varied, career. This is the largest retrospective of Georgia O’ Keeffe ever to be shown outside America and a very special opportunity for the UK to see the breadth and quality of the work of this founding figure of American modernism.
The show marks a century since O’Keeffe’s debut at New York’s ‘291’ gallery in 1916 and works from this time open the Tate exhibition. O’Keeffe was still working as a teacher at the time and it is fascinating to see the genesis of O’Keeffe’s preoccupations with landscape, colour and music in these early works in charcoal, watercolour and oils. Themes that would go on to be developed throughout O’Keeffe’s long career.
Detail from Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above the Clouds III/Above the Clouds III (1963)
The exhibition spans six decades of the artist’s career and some of the most arresting and powerful of O’Keeffe’s works on show here are those she created in New Mexico, where the artist had a home from the 1930s onwards. The land and sky of this region made favourite subjects for O’Keeffe for the rest of her life. She revels in the colours – the pinks, blues and oranges of the sunsets and the earthy browns and reds of the land. Often abstracted, these landscapes and skyscapes with their stylised clouds, red-brown adobe houses and bleached animal skulls show O’Keeffe’s love for the distinctive geography, culture and geology of the area.
This is a knockout exhibition, the sort that stays with you. What lingers is not perhaps what you expected, it’s not the sumptuous flower paintings but the verve and vitality of the woman herself and her long career spent constantly striving to capture the nature around her.
I went expecting to see an exhibition of flower paintings but I am delighted to have had my preconceptions upended. I left the show with my knowledge and understanding of the work and life of Georgia O’Keeffe recalibrated. It clearly needed to be.
Georgia O’Keeffe is on at Tate Modern until 30th October 2016.
Adult £19 (without donation £17.20)
Concession £17 (without donation £15.40)
Free for Under 12s and Tate Members
Daily 10am – 6pm
and until 10pm on Friday & Saturday