You should know her name; at the very least you will recognise her paintings. Huge flowers, bursting with colour and life, stark landscapes of deserts, wilderness and city skylines with gorgeously vibrant and bold colours all epitomise the work of American artist Georgia O’Keeffe – considered to be one of the founding figures of American modernism.
Running until 30 October, the Tate Modern’s vast retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work is the largest ever exhibition of the modernist artist outside the US. Over 100 of her works have been borrowed from more than 60 lenders across 23 US states and take over 13 rooms in the newly-vamped gallery.
The first room shows O’Keeffe’s earliest work – The Early Years and 291 – charcoal sketches showing streaks of sunrise or vague horizons during her time as an art teacher in Virginia and Texas in the early 1900s. There’s also her first exhibited work, from in New York, in 1916 – two years before she moved to Manhattan with the photographer, gallerist and future husband, Alfred Stieglitz. It was in his gallery, 291 where she debuted. The rooms move chronologically and the fourth room – New York Cityscapes – is marvellous. Focsuing on O’Keeffe’s work between 1925 and 1929, it’s s full of glorious, colourful paintings of New York skyscrapers.
Room 6 – Flowers and Still Lifes – is enchanting and possibly where you’ll find O’Keeffe’s most recognisable paintings. She is renowned for her close-up flower paintings which she made over a long period – from the 1920s to the 1950s. How can one fail to be captivated by the deep reds and bright oranges in Oriental Poppies? Or the beautiful Jimson Weed/White Flower No1? It’s easy to see how these paintings were considered overtly sexual – especially, in the vivid Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, though O’Keeffe always disregarded such comparisons between her close-up flowers and the female form.
The following room – New Mexico: Taos and Alcalde – celebrates O’Keeffe’s first visit to New Mexico, in 1929. She would instantly fall in love with it, and it was here she died in 1986. She made various visits to Taos and to Alcalde, and loved to draw landscapes. Look out for Black Cross with Stars and Blue, which depicts a close-up black cross and, ahead, midnight blue mountains and a sky with twinkling stars. The rich, bold blues are gorgeous.
O’Keeffe was first and foremost inspired by nature. In the New Mexico desert she discovered animal skulls, which she collected and painted against softer colours such as pinks and pale blues, perhaps to offset the sharpness and ominous nature of the skulls themselves. This is continued in her following two rooms – From the Faraway, Nearby: The Skull Paintings and Ghost Ranch. The penultimate room, The Southwest, shows work from the 1930s and 1940s, reflecting O’Keeffe’s deep connection to the Southwest. The room includes drawings and sketches as well as paintings, depicting Native American ‘kachinas’ – figures of spirit being carved in wood.
It’s worth noting that Stieglitz took many photographs of O’Keeffe, many of which are displayed. And there are featured photographs from O’Keeffe’s friend, the acclaimed photographer Ansel Adams, who shared her passion for the Southwest, giving the entire exhibition new depth and perspective. Go forth and lose yourself.
Georgia O’Keeffe runs from 6 July – 30 October, open daily between 10am-6pm, at the Tate Modern. For more information and to book tickets, see the Tate Modern website.