“When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.”
Ask about Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) and most anyone will respond with mention of oversized, over-enlarged depictions of flowers in bright pigments. And it’s true; search O’Keeffe on Google images and an overwhelming majority of results will show her flower (or vagina?) paintings. And yet such works were some of the most contentious in her career. Not because they were more difficult to produce or because they said something profound. But instead, because of quite the opposite — it’s what they didn’t say, or rather, what O’Keeffe so voraciously said they didn’t mean.
O’Keeffe’s retrospective at the Tate Modern, which ran until October 30, aimed to tell this alternative narrative, and succeeded — though success is never absolute. The exhibit presented a fresh, new take on the twentieth-century American artist and her work, but it’s not without irony as it’s very much her original take on her own work.
In a world with a never-ending supply of critical voices, many are far too happy to limit the importance of the artist’s statement in place for a more analysed and academic reading. Why is it suddenly fresh and dare-one-say radical even to take into account O’Keeffe’s own perspectives on her work? The exhibition made its aim, “to dispel the clichés that persist about O’Keeffe’s work, emphasising instead the pioneering nature and breadth of her career,” clear at the start. It’s important to remember many of these readings/clichés were put forth by the “male art historian” and have been rarely contested since.
Perhaps this “radical” new reading comes at a well-positioned time, when a sudden resurgence of feminism is breaking ground across social media platforms and daily conversations. It’s only now ironic that O’Keeffe’s resistance to her work being classified as feminist suddenly itself becomes feminist inspiration to a new wave of millennials wanting to place women’s narratives at the forefront of contemporary culture. The exhibition was even curated by two women: Tanya Barson and Hannah Johnston of the Tate Modern. Though not without flaws, the Tate’s exhibition is a step in the right direction.
The exhibit highlighted the fact that for much of her career, O’Keeffe fought against the erotic and feminist readings that people attach to her works. These now quasi-immediate interpretations became feminist fodder for a wave of women artists in the ‘70s, including Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro. Beneath the surface however, one discovers that an early proponent of these psychoanalytic interpretations was O’Keeffe’s own husband, the acclaimed photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who was in many ways an important influence on her career.
The Tate exhibit emphasized Stieglitz and O’Keeffe’s symbiotic relationship by appropriately positioning his photographs alongside her works. This theme ran throughout the exhibition, highlighting the ways in which their works often complemented each other’s with subjects and styles overlapping. The third gallery space presented several of Stieglitz’s photos from his famous cloud series, which are mirrored by O’Keeffe’s painting of clouds, titled A Celebration. The dialogue between the two artists is exceptional to see. But at the same time this interpretation only adds to the nuanced way in which the exhibition is itself an emerging feminist perspective of O’Keeffe’s work; although often thought of as a feminist icon, the mainstream interpretations of O’Keeffe’s works were dictated through the male gaze. Let’s not forget the context, as it was Stieglitz who gave O’Keeffe her first show after all.
In addition to propelling this alternative narrative, the Tate’s retrospective of O’Keeffe marked a century of her work being exhibited. Her first exhibition was in held 1916 in New York, and the first room in the Tate’s exhibition brilliantly recreated this original show. The curators present photographs of O’Keeffe’s first exhibition alongside its recreation of the display, complete with the shallow ledge running along the walls and the black curtains hung beneath. Walking into this room gave visitors a welcome break from the uniform white cube aesthetic of the Tate Modern’s galleries rampant throughout the museum. However, the recreation ended with the first room, a smart choice to minimise the risk of the exhibition feeling like a gimmick.
In addition to early watercolours and charcoal works, one of her only sculptures was presented here as well. Titled Abstraction, the sculpture is displayed similarly to its original presentation and has an eerie resemblance to her bone paintings, which weren’t completed until much later in her career and are also presented later in the exhibition.
Leaving the recreation, the rest of the exhibition was laid out in a more traditional manner, similar to other exhibits of her paintings around the world, like the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Focusing on her work with oils, the second room actually felt more engaged with the intention of the exhibition. There’s a stark difference upon entering the second gallery, and perhaps this was quite intentional. The Tate made a statement: this isn’t merely a retrospective; this is a new dialogue.
Directly addressing the clichés of her work, notably the erotic and feminist readings most commonly associated with her up-close and personal depictions of velvety flowers, the room’s didactic includes a quote from O’Keeffe: “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.” Instead of perpetuating the clichés, the room attempts to redirect the focus from the typical erotic readings to O’Keeffe’s interest with synesthesia and her work’s connection to music. O’Keeffe, who was a musician in addition to an artist, was interested in the language of colour and how music could translate on the canvas, and it’s nice to see this highlighted over the supposed eroticism of the imagery.
In an attempt to discourage various “inaccurate” readings of her work, O’Keeffe often changed styles and subject matter. Although, moving away from flowers to phallic-shaped skyscrapers in New York probably didn’t help. The remainder of the exhibition focused on presenting these works from the different periods and styles of O’Keeffe’s career. As there are no public collections of any of O’Keeffe’s works in the United Kingdom, the exhibition reflected an opportunity for many in Britain to see the full range of her works, from her well-known flowers and New Mexico landscapes to her cityscapes of New York and depictions of Native American figures. Her urban parallels to the nature works offer an interesting feminist perspective; the didactic provides another quote, “Of course I was told it was an impossible idea — even the men hadn’t done too well with it.” Here again the Tate did a perceptive job of using O’Keeffe’s own words to lead the narrative. She knew what she was determinedly up against, and, paradoxically, this quote feeds into the feminist dialogue better than psychoanalysis ever could.
The exhibition presented the remarkable range of her styles with easy transitions between the rooms, making her career feel more like one continuous movement rather than stilted through a series of periods, as she’s often known for. While still depicting flower forms, her paintings in the fourth gallery showed her use of a heightened photo realist style, which is interesting when seen in relation to more of Stieglitz’s photographs. The realist style was also, however, a devise she used to evade sexualised readings. Interestingly though, contrasted with the realistic subjects and foregrounds, the backgrounds of many of these still life paintings tended to be more abstract and fluid, similar to her earlier works. Later in the exhibition, in gallery 10, visitors were confronted by several of O’Keeffe’s depictions of the same subject through different styles, showing her resistance to conform to one style. On the other hand, it’s easy in this gallery to see how difficult it can be to view her works without a sexual context, as if it’s a preconditioned trait of her work. This seems to be the case with Black Hills with Cedar, a landscape with two ridges converging at the center with a bush positioned between them also presented in this room.
What the Tate Modern did well, but not un-ironically, was attempt to dispel the myths that circulate around O’Keeffe’s work. However, as The Guardian art critic Adrian Searle astutely points out, no matter how successful the exhibition was in transforming the visitors’ perception of a household name artist, the abundance of stereotypical postcards and tacky southwestern-themed souvenirs at the exhibit’s exit played far too easily back into the clichés’ hands. Dumping visitors into a room full of O’Keeffe banalities as the final statement unfortunately worked somewhat to negate the aim of the exhibition. Yet like all major museums today, the Tate is a corporate enterprise built on budgets and attendance numbers, which begs me to wonder about the extent to which, as an institution, it can really make a profound change perceptions of O’Keeffe and her artwork. Nonetheless, the decision to base an exhibition of a well established artist’s work in her own narrative is a welcomed departure from both the historical and critical analyses that dominate the art world.
Sources: “Interview with Tanya Barson, Curator, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tate Modern London,” Aesthetica Magazine. April 18 2016
Tanya Barson, “Georgia O’Keeffe,” Tate Modern.