At Tate Modern, an Attempt to Free Georgia O’Keeffe’s Art from an Erotic Interpretation

LONDON — The opening of Tate Modern on London’s South Bank in 2000 changed the landscape of contemporary art in Britain.

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II1” (1930), oil on canvas mounted on board,61.6 x 92.1 inches (Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum)

LONDON — The opening of Tate Modern on London’s South Bank in 2000 changed the landscape of contemporary art in Britain. Prior to this visitors only had the peculiar – and some say now irrelevant – Turner Prize and its home Tate Britain (then known simply as ‘the Tate’) as the UK’s leading source for modern and contemporary art, with Charles Saatchi’s collection in County Hall representing the YBA (Young British Artists) subheading. After the Tate Modern’s opening, 16 years followed of vastly improved tourist figures and a total regeneration of the area around London Bridge. While the top spot for visiting numbers remains the ever-brilliant British Museum (thanks in major part to outgoing director Neil MacGregor) with 6.82 million visiting in 2015, Tate Modern has suffered a slump of late: 5.8 million in 2014 down to 4.7 million in 2015. It reinvented itself again this year, opening an extension by architects Herzog & de Meuron called the Switch House, costing £260 million ($368 million), and somewhat controversially given the widespread cuts in arts funding now squeezing smaller institutions.

The reinvention in architectural terms has been greeted with general positivity by critics and takes up much of the extension’s media coverage. But it is arguably the rehang of the new building’s displays that signals the important change: it will address the more pressing issue of the museum’s attitude to global artists. For many years displayed on a wall overlooking the Turbine Hall was a timeline of art movements and key figures from the late 19th century to the early 21st, all of which were European or North American, indicating an attitude of exclusivity that has long characterized art history academia. Indeed, my own university, the Courtauld Institute, only in very recent years has begun to acknowledge global art movements, having previously taught almost exclusively what it calls ‘Western Art History.’ The Tate Modern 2016 rehang and programming must address this embarrassingly outdated approach.

Thus it plunged straight in with an exhibition survey of Indian artist Bhupen Khakhar. That two British critics slammed it, with the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones giving it one star out of five and referring to “… some misplaced notion that non-European art needs to be looked at with special critical generosity,” illustrates that this world-view remains depressingly ingrained. The Observer’s Laura Cumming’s remark that Khakhar “had no fluency or touch with the brush” speaks of a staggering ignorance of art outside the white Western male canon, and implies that everything else exists only in relation to it.

Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait; Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864 - 1946); United States; 1918; Palladium print; 24.8 x 20.3 cm (9 3/4 x 8 in.); 91.XM.63.13
Alfred Stieglitz, “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) (click to enlarge)

This brings us to another issue facing the Tate Modern: ticket sales and visitor figures. Certainly the Bhupen Khakhar is a welcome step, but it’s not the big name that the museum has come to rely on for its blockbuster shows. Against this state of affairs, the decision to mount a survey of the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe becomes crystal clear: being female, she is among the underrepresented, yet her name is sufficiently well known to bring in ticket sales, especially given that none of her work exists in UK public collections — this is the biggest retrospective ever mounted outside the US — and that her work is bright, colorful, and poster-friendly.

The main drive of the survey, curated by Tanya Barson, is to dispel the erotic overtones dominating interpretations of O’Keeffe’s paintings, and to show her as not “merely an observational painter” but progressively modern, influenced by photography and modes of abstraction. This erotic interpretation clearly vexed O’Keeffe at the time, who declared “the critics are just talking about themselves, not about what I am thinking,” and, the Tate argues, continues to stand in the way of appreciation of the greater complexities and influences of her work.

Thus the exhibition carefully and methodically extracts for focus the other factors at play in O’Keeffe’s work. The first room is a recreation of photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz’s display of O’Keeffe’s early charcoals and watercolors of 1917, which curiously already resemble the later oil colors in form, construction, and composition. Of note here is the consistency of the works: there is little hesitancy or the feeling of groping towards something; it is as if her style arrives fully formed. Supporting this is the fascinating inclusion of a lone sculpture which mirrors her smooth, confident lines and crisp rendering. Her early oil abstractions draw on spiritualist modes of thought, à la Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Hilma af Klint, and have a sensory reception to music and sound; the interplay of hard and soft edges and geometric form such as in “Blue and Green Music” (1919/21) express movement and dynamism. Yet even within this supposedly nonrepresentational work it is hard to ignore clear sexual content present in examples such as “Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow” (1923) which is undeniably labial in shape, perhaps not helped by distinctly flesh-like colors in pinky blue pastels.

2014.35 Georgia O'Keeffe Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932 Oil on canvas 48 × 40 in. (121.9 × 101.6 cm) Framed: 53 in. × 44 3/4 in. × 2 1/2 in.
Georgia O’Keeffe, “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” (1932), oil paint on canvas, 48 x 40 inches, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA (photo by Edward C. Robison III© 2016, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London)

Further rooms focus on O’Keeffe’s relationship with a progressive artistic group surrounding her then-husband Alfred Stieglitz, before moving onto inexhaustible studies from her movements around Lake George – including key flower paintings – then New Mexico, where the familiar studies of bones, skulls, and Native American symbolism come to the fore. My main issue with O’Keeffe is this: though her painterly technique remains solidly consistent throughout her life, that is, flat, with pastel-heavy modelling, often with a single focal piece in the center and little spatial depth, it is to my mind too consistent, with little deviation. Perhaps the sexual interpretation that unfortunately was latched onto her work wasn’t ever shaken off because the works’ striking visual appearance never went through any major shifts or experiments in other methods. That there are so many pieces in this exhaustive survey further highlights a lack of variation. Because the rendering is so spatially flat and smooth, I think greater interest is to be found if one regards her more as a colorist (most pieces would work well in print and textile in my opinion), and in this context, her studies of gray-white cliffs in the Chama River valley, for example, are far more compelling: these “White Place” and “Black Place” pieces return to a powerfully effective abstracting treatment of the forbidding landscape and its changing light.

The sheer number of works loaned to Tate Modern for the show is admirable, and presents a carefully argued case for a more expansive reading of her work. Certainly, the erotic appearance of many is undeniable despite her protestations, though the Tate takes pains to argue how other factors including spiritualism, music, and form fed into her practice. Given many visitors are familiar with her often-reproduced work in postcards, posters, etc., I remained unconvinced that seeing them in the flesh facilitated a deeper appreciation or understanding of them. Instead, the more cynical side of me was left believing the survey was selected with half a mind for the revenue O’Keeffe reproductions will make in the gift shop. In addition, though it is certainly welcome to see exhibition space devoted to a female artist, O’Keeffe, being perhaps the most famous white American female artist, hardly needs this exposure, admirable though the intention may be. This is a savvy exercise in serving the underrepresented while simultaneously securing a sure-fire blockbuster.

Georgia O’Keeffe continues at Tate Modern (Bankside, London, SE1 9TG) through October 30. 

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