Georgia O’ Keeffe must be spinning in her grave: even though she actively protested against the interpretation of her close-up flower paintings as sexual organs, the easiest way to make someone’s face light up with recognition at the mention of her work is usually by adding “you know – the vagina-flower painter”. Tacky, perhaps, but a memorable selling point – furthermore, a feminine selling point that the artist Judy Chicago wanted to add to her work in establishing a list of notable women artists for a long overdue feminist reinterpretation of art history. However, this is a tagline Tate Modern forcibly brushed away with an exhibition which focuses on her entire legacy and her desire, at heart, to represent two recurring obsessions: the American landscape and the intense contemplative nature of still life.
The exhibition starts with a historical reconstruction of her Whitney Museum retrospective in 1946 in which O’Keeffe presented her work during her lifetime, complete with sightly kitsch showroom-like curtain-tables. This had the advantage of setting the tone for the rest of the exhibition – a reappraisal of her work without additional reinterpretations and frills – but falls slightly flat visually in such a large opening room. It then leads on to little-known abstract works from the early 1910s, working towards representing music through abstract colour and form. The vibrant colours and organic shapes are captivating and mysterious, drawing us into contemplation of the flat, yet infinitely expressive surface. Of course, they seem to announce the future, worldwide famous flower paintings but less with the nature of these “sexual” or “feminine” soft folds and colours, and more with a way of looking. As we move from cosmic colour-music to tulips, jimson weeds and orchids, a quote by the artist is particularly strong and resonates through the display of flowers, their delicacy made monumental and contemplative.
O’ Keeffe herself commented upon the risks of her union with the photographer Alfred Steiglitz overshadowing her own work and recognition and it seems strange, therefore, that so much room would be devoted to his photography as well. There is certainly a risk in making his work and its influence on her such a large part of the exhibition, while including so many photographs of her as his “muse” in an exhibition meant to give O’Keeffe’s work room to breathe. Nevertheless, the photographs are striking, powerful testimonies to their relation and evade any risk of O’Keeffe becoming a passive subject in any given scenario.
The most captivating elements of the display were not the ones I expected nor the ones I knew about at all. O’ Keeffe spent a vast amount of her time painting the dry, warm, rocky landscapes of New Mexico. Heat and visions of a wild, untamed America rise from the canvas in bold yet subtle shaded of black, grey, orange and pink. Another striking surprise: the paintings of animal skulls which mingle with depictions of desert flowers. O’Keeffe, once again stubbornly rejecting Surrealist or symbolical readings of her work, celebrates instead the vitality of these bones she considers as more alive than the animals themselves through their surface and formal dynamism. They are strange and compelling fixations, like O’Keeffe’s strange obsession with the doors of houses from New Mexico and the semi-abstract shapes they create. As far as symbolism or states of mind go, the rocky landscapes are often far more telling but also more ambiguous, with warm folds which can also become menacing chasms.
Yet as frustrating as it may be for the artist, interpretation and symbolism is inevitable. The exhibition does not aim to guilt us into rejecting any way we may consider O’Keeffe’s work whatever she may think, but simply gets rid of any pre-conceived notion that we have had before finding ourselves in front of the work. Ultimately, whether or not O’Keeffe’s work is to be analysed in terms of sexuality or femininity is not primarily relevant to who she is and why she paints. The fact that her work was not intended as a celebration of a restricted version of “womanhood” does not make her work any less feminist and revolutionary in the way she bares a raw, unadulterated and complex vision through a unique way of painting and looking. As O’Keeffe herself said, in a quote far more memorable than any ire about flowers being compared to vaginas: “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters.”