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The unseen Georgia O’Keeffe

The curator of Tate’s new blockbuster explains why there’s more to the artist than flowers — discussing New York, colour, and her complex relationship with Alfred Stieglitz

Why is the time right for a major O’Keeffe exhibition?

Tanya Barson: We’re 100 years from O’Keeffe’s debut in New York. In 1916, she exhibited with two other artists at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 gallery, going on to have a solo show in 1917. She also lived for almost a century. I was thinking about those two 100-year periods: her life, and the 100 years she has been in the public consciousness.

How was O’Keeffe first received?  

One of the artist’s earliest reviews refers to O’Keeffe as a ‘little-known personality’. It’s such a nice line because, shortly after that, she became widely known — both through her own exhibitions, and as the subject of portraits by Stieglitz (the photographer and O’Keeffe’s gallerist, whom she married in 1924). In 1921, Stieglitz exhibited photographs he had taken of O’Keeffe — of her hands and different parts of her body, both clothed and nude.

As a photographic subject, O’Keeffe became a sensation; as an artist, she quickly became notorious. She was written about from a very early stage in her career in lengthy reviews by journalists including Paul Rosenfeld and Marsden Hartley. Her work was bought very quickly, too; she became quite celebrated.

Alfred Stieglitz 1864-1946. Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918. Photograph, palladium print on paper. 243 x 192 mm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. © The J. Paul Getty Trust

Alfred Stieglitz 1864-1946. Georgia O’Keeffe, 1918. Photograph, palladium print on paper. 243 x 192 mm. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles. © The J. Paul Getty Trust

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986. Special No. 9, 1915. Charcoal on paper. 635 x 486 mm. The Menil Collection, Houston © 2016 Georgia OKeeffe MuseumDACS, London
Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986. Special No. 9, 1915. Charcoal on paper. 635 x 486 mm. The Menil Collection, Houston © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

Why did she become so popular?

There’s something about her art that caught the public imagination. Her work changed, but even in her early charcoal drawings and watercolours, there’s something that’s recognisably O’Keeffe. She had an extraordinary sense of colour and composition — something she’d learnt from one of her teachers, the artist Arthur Wesley Dow. He was always thinking about beauty, and O’Keeffe was not afraid of the beautiful; she’s very generous to her viewers.

What were O’Keeffe’s other influences?

Dow had been active at the height of Art Nouveau, and there are aspects of Art Nouveau design that resonate throughout O’Keeffe’s work — in her love of spirals, and arabesques. 

Another influence was O’Keeffe’s love of music, which she had given up to become an artist. She read Kandinsky’s writings on synaesthesia in the year they were released, and made paintings in response to music. She understood abstraction very early: Kandinsky made his first abstract in 1911, and, by 1916, O’Keeffe was making her own.

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986. Music – Pink and Blue No. 1, 1918. Oil paint on canvas 889 x 737 mm. Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth. Partial and Promised gift to Seattle Art Museum © 2016 Georgia OKeeffe MuseumDACS, London
Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986. Music – Pink and Blue No. 1, 1918. Oil paint on canvas 889 x 737 mm. Collection of Barney A. Ebsworth. Partial and Promised gift to Seattle Art Museum © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

How is the exhibition at Tate structured?

It’s intended as a retrospective, beginning from O’Keeffe’s first exhibition at 291, which was really the beginning of her career as a full-time artist. We cover a period of six decades, though deliberately chose not to be rigorously faithful to chronology.

There are rooms dedicated to 291 and her early years, to abstraction and the senses, and to her relationship with Stieglitz. We also look at different locations — from Lake George to New Mexico, ending with her last major series, the horizon paintings Sky Above Clouds.

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986. Sky with Flat White Cloud, 1962. Oil paint on canvas. 1524 x 2032 mm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe © 2016 Georgia OKeeffe MuseumDACS, London
Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986. Sky with Flat White Cloud, 1962. Oil paint on canvas. 1524 x 2032 mm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O’Keeffe © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

I was especially happy to exhibit a series she made in what she christened ‘The Black Place’ — a stretch of hills 150 miles west of where she lived in New Mexico. O’Keeffe would go there and camp, painting on location in all weathers from 1936 until the end of the 1940s. During this time her paintings of the area transform, moving away from a naturalistic style to the point of pure abstraction.

The series includes some paintings from 1944, which I think are some of the best she ever did. They’re unexpectedly aggressive. O’Keeffe paints an emotional response to the harsh weather conditions she experiences there — from wild storms to snow, or intense heat. In the background, however, it’s also the height of World War Two;  I think her work’s not dissociated from history.

How diverse are these O’Keeffes?

The exhibition aims to show the variety of O’Keeffe’s work as she shifts between locations and subject matter. What emerges is a consistent oscillation between abstract modernist art and depictions of the natural environment — as landscapes, leaves or flowers.

O’Keeffe was drawing upon a European modernism — built by Kandinsky and the artists Stieglitz presented at 291, including Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Cézanne and Rodin — and combining it with a sense of America.

That sense of national identity is nowhere greater than in her landscapes; even a small painting of apples from the autumn crop in Lake George can be read as a symbolic exploration of America. It’s also a reference to O’Keeffe’s childhood, on a dairy farm in the prairies of Wisconsin.

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986. Lake George Barns, 1926. Oil paint on canvas. 538 x 814 mm. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Gift of the T. B. Walker Foundation, 1954. © 2016 Georgia OKeeffe MuseumDACS, London
Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986. Lake George Barns, 1926. Oil paint on canvas. 538 x 814 mm. Collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis. Gift of the T. B. Walker Foundation, 1954. © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

Was that sense of American identity difficult to translate to London?

The show is the biggest of O’Keeffe’s work to have travelled outside the United States, and is designed for an international public. From London, it will travel to Vienna and then to Canada.

We were conscious of explaining an idea of cultural nationalism in a particular era of American history. O’Keeffe was part of a generation that came to maturity in the Progressive Era: she lived through the roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, two world wars and the Cold War, and saw Reagan become President. As O’Keeffe worked, the world transformed around her.

We talk about O’Keeffe as a ‘woman artist’. Should we?

It’s something we’ve acknowledged. Early reviews made it clear O’Keeffe was a female artist, and she responded vocally to the way her work was gendered by critics, who were largely male.

Stieglitz was a complex character. Although he had very advanced ideas, and was keen to provide a platform for women artists, O’Keeffe was never comfortable with the Freudian readings he made of her work — as being feminine, or representing womanhood. In a way, it was an expression of his love for her: to Stieglitz, O’Keeffe was the ultimate idea of woman. But she didn’t want to be seen as a woman artist. The objection was one she made again in the 1970s, when feminists sought to celebrate her as a source of female iconography — gendering her work, ironically, as the male critics of the 1920s had done before them. 

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986. White Iris, 1930. Oil paint on canvas. 1016 x 762 mm. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Mr and Mrs Bruce C. Gottwald. © 2016 Georgia OKeeffe MuseumDACS, London

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986. White Iris, 1930. Oil paint on canvas. 1016 x 762 mm. Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Mr and Mrs Bruce C. Gottwald. © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986. New York Street with Moon, 1925. Oil paint on canvas. 1220 x 770 mm. Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © 2016 Georgia OKeeffe Museum DACS, London

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986. New York Street with Moon, 1925. Oil paint on canvas. 1220 x 770 mm. Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on loan at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/ DACS, London

Is it wrong, then, that O’Keeffe’s imagery is so often sexualised? 

O’Keeffe was quite clear, and insisted, ‘When people read erotic symbols into my painting, they’re really thinking about their own affairs.’ In a catalogue for one of her exhibitions in 1939, O’Keeffe said, ‘You write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t.’ She published the statement again in 1977, and repeated it directly to camera in a documentary with Terry Miller. It’s something I think we should really listen to. 

In the mid 1920s, she moved away from diaphanous, coloured abstraction, and started painting New York City, which is gendered male. Critics laughed at her, but she did it anyway. There’s nothing more radical an artist can do than to state that you’re reading their work incorrectly or in a way they dislike, so that it causes them to change it.

We’ve seen a lot of shows that emphasise women artists. Is that parity a broader concern?

There’s a debate as to how much attention we give to artists who just happen to be women. At Tate, we’ve always been keen to see women artists take centre stage. I think there’s a generation of female curators (to gender the term) concerned that, even now, there’s a lack of parity for artists who are just as good as their male peers.

O’Keeffe herself confronted these issues. In 1944 she wrote to Eleanor Roosevelt to ask her to support equal rights for women. What O’Keefe wanted more than anything was to be equal to her male peers. Not to be described as a woman artist, but to be described as an artist. 

Did Stieglitz change the way O’Keeffe was perceived? 

Stieglitz was very loquacious and spoke to everyone who came to his galleries, where O’Keeffe exhibited almost annually. In 1919, he wrote a text on women artists and, although it was not published until 1960, phrases from it appear in reviews by critics including Paul Rosenfeld in the 1920s.

Stieglitz wrote that women ‘receive the world through the womb’. In 1922 O’Keeffe complained that male critics ‘make me seem like some strange unearthly sort of creature floating in the air’. The fact was, she insisted, ‘I like beef steak — and like it rare at that.’

Ansel Adams 1902-1984. Georgia O’Keeffe in the Southwest, 1937. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper. 297 x 187 mm. Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona Ansel Adams Archive © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust
Ansel Adams 1902-1984. Georgia O’Keeffe in the Southwest, 1937. Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper. 297 x 187 mm. Collection Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona: Ansel Adams Archive © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust

Why did you want to curate an O’Keeffe show? 

I was curious about how she did what she did — how she led such an extraordinary life — when so much must have been in her way. O’Keeffe’s family raised her with a belief in self-reliance; she was an intelligent woman, and remained determined throughout her life. 

We’re trying to rectify a severe unfamiliarity with her work. She’s very famous for a few things; the flower paintings are probably the most well known of her works, but they represent perhaps only five per cent of her career. There’s so much more to discover.

Georgia O’Keeffe is at Tate Modern, London, until 30 October 2016