Georgia O’Keeffe @ Tate Modern / July 6 – Oct 30, 2016.


Georgia O’Keeffe, Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II 1930, Oil on canvas mounted on board, 24 1/4 x 36 1/4 (61.6 x 92.1), Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

In a desert landscape, time can appear to slow to an extent which becomes difficult to measure. The sky each day can be virtually identical to that of the previous day. Evenly spaced clouds cast tidy shadows over the landscape. The result of walking to a horizon might seem equivalent to staying put. In a scenario where virtually nothing changes, neither the landscape, the climate nor the viewpoint, the only variable which the viewer, a painter perhaps, might be sensitive to is herself as she stands within the landscape. The painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887 – 1986) was drawn to New Mexico perhaps in part because of the sun-baked permanence of the landscape. It is the kind of climate which allows an artist to spend time examining geographical features, without risk of the weather transforming the view beyond recognition. It is the same kind of permanence that drew Cezanne back repeatedly to Mont St. Victoire.

Georgia O’Keeffe liked to suggest that location was of incidental importance to her work, having written in 1976 “Where I was born and where and how I have lived is unimportant.”*. As a statement of fact however, this is amply contradicted by the majority of her paintings, which are very much products of the places in which the artist spent different stages of her life. It is more likely that O’Keeffe, through this defiant statement, was taking control of her own story in much the same way as she had learned to do as far back as the 1920s in New York.

“They make me seem like some strange unearthly sort of creature floating in the air – breathing in clouds for nourishment – when the truth is that I like beef steak – and like it rare at that.” – Georgia O’Keeffe

From the moment of her first solo exhibition at 291, the New York gallery of photographer and influential art world figure Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe’s public reception was being stage managed in a way which foregrounded her status as a female artist. It was a reading of her work which the artist thought bore no relation to what she was producing; “They make me seem like some strange unearthly sort of creature floating in the air – breathing in clouds for nourishment – when the truth is that I like beef steak – and like it rare at that.”. Having met in 1916, O’Keeffe and Stieglitz formed a relationship which was both professional and to different degrees mutually developmental, and which evolved into a personal one very rapidly, with the couple ultimately marrying in 1924. In 1925 O’Keeffe and Stieglitz moved into an apartment in the 34 storey Shelton Hotel on Lexington Avenue. By this time O’Keeffe was firmly established in Stieglitz’s professional circle of what she called ‘city men’; a circle which included the photographer Paul Strand (1890 – 1976), and the painters Marsden Hartley (1877 – 1943) and John Marin (1870 – 1953). From 1925 until 1929 O’Keeffe painted a series of New York cityscapes inspired by the emerging metropolis, seen both from street level and from the windows of the couple’s apartment. These paintings are among the most solid works the artist produced in her entire career. Their slightly fractured planes, emphasised, if not created, by the steam and smoke rising from the city, speak more of the influence of male dominated European Cubism than any presumed femininity or lightness of touch. Continue reading “Georgia O’Keeffe @ Tate Modern / July 6 – Oct 30, 2016.”

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