Sunday, 2 October 2016

Georgia on my mind.

Friday evening is always a nice time to visit Tate Modern. The galleries stay open late and with the weekend stretching out in front of you you can enjoy the place at a leisurely pace and know you'll still have time for a pint or two afterwards. My friends Mark and Natalie had joined me for the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition and I'd been tasked by other friends to write about it without making the obvious parallels between flowers and vaginas. It was a task I was happily prepared to fail.

I'd read so much about the show that I half expected to find it a bit daunting. But even though they'd got together over 100 of O'Keeffe's works they'd spread them out fairly evenly and not crowded the rooms. There was time and space to take it all in.

Georgia O'Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin in 1887 and lived for nearly a century. She was the daughter of Irish and Dutch-Hungarian emigrants and decided to be an artist before her twelfth birthday. Thus her career was long and productive. Her first show was at the 291 gallery in New York 100 years ago in 1916 and she died in 1986 in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Her first works were created when she was working as an art teacher in Virginia. They revealed her to be a gifted colourist and took, from the off, inspiration from both landscape and synaesthesia. Red and Orange Streak (1919) has something of the Russian constructivist about it.

In 1918 O'Keeffe moved from Texas to New York and started to take her abstractions more seriously. Shifting from charcoal to oil she began to wrestle with the idea that music could be translated into something for the eye. Black, White, and Blue (1930) shows the fruits of this labour whilst Grey Lines with Black, Blue, and Yellow (1923) demonstrates the blossoming of her flower painting. The work she was to become most strongly associated with. It's here I fail in my task as it's at this point that critics, egged on by her older partner Alfred Stieglitz, began to compare these to female genitalia. Georgia felt this probably said more about the critics than it did her.

She was no shrinking violet. Alongside a selection of cloud photographs there's a collection of pictures of Georgia bearing all for the camera. If you like tits and bush there's plenty here for you. Stieglitz's input into her career is problematic, though. There are times when he no doubt gave her great confidence and helped her make connections. Other occasions he seems to view her as little more than a trophy. Younger, cleverer, and more talented than him and, therefore, ripe to be exploited.

Of course she was seen as his muse. Such a loathsome outdated concept. When O'Keeffe expressed her desire to paint New York she was told that even men hadn't been able to do that city justice. Even men! New York Street with Moon, from 1925, suggests she did what the men supposedly could not. It manages to both convey Gotham's angularity and also its beauty. It has a yearning element that wouldn't be out of place in an Edward Hopper.

East River from the 30th storey of the Shelton Hotel, 1928, is a more traditional work. As Natalie said almost Lowryesque in its depiction of the city's industry. The New York works are some of my very favourites on show here but soon O'Keeffe fell out of love with the city. After the Wall Street Crash in 1929 she made her first prolonged visit to New Mexico and her love affair with New York subsided even further during the Great Depression. It's a pity as it'd have been great to see what she'd make of the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Both yet to be built.

Our loss was also our gain though as she went from strength to strength. The landscapes she painted in upstate New York could almost be seen as intermediaries between her city and desert phases but really need to be viewed as major works. I found myself returning time and again to the cool aquatic blues of 1922's Lake George. As sublime and pensive as one of Whistler's nocturnes.

In 1926 she painted the barns around Lake George because they reminded her of her Sun Prairie home. She managed to imbue within them a sense of solitude, otherness, and mystery. The barns look both inviting and terrifying at the same time.

With one eye on the vastness of nature another remained glued to the infinitesimal. She felt nobody really looked at flowers in any great depth and strove to create portraits of botanical precision blown up to huge scale for our appreciation. She hoped that by doing this she'd move the conversation away from sexual comparisons. Instead they only increased. I wonder what she'd think if she knew that now the eggplant emoji is used to indicate a dildo.

O'Keeffe fell immediately in love with the landscape of New Mexico. The rural, expansive qualities. The adobe architecture. The high and dry altitudes and the views out to the mesas. This was hers and this was where she was to stay. Practicalities must've been difficult but a fairly extensive, and often rather scrumptious looking, book of her recipes in the gift shop suggests she not only got by but she prospered. She did live to be 98 after all.

The Black Cross with Stars and Blue, 1929, depicted a site held sacred to some of the local native Americans. The almost photographic quality of Taos, Pueblo (1929-1934) acts like an ethnographic survey to the less celestial architecture of the area. Finally 1930's Rust Red Hills conveys both the majesty of New Mexico's nature and the ceaseless wonders evinced by the play of sunlight across said nature. They almost ache with beauty.

In places where life is felt to its fullest so often death is found in its frankest expression also. O'Keeffe was so fascinated by the bones she found strewn across the desert floor she took them home and worked up a collection of them. In the desert they stood in for flowers and in a complete reverse of the skull's usual place in art, that of the memento mori, came to stand for life rather than death. The antlers of From the Faraway, Nearby (1937) fork out like branches of a tree and Mule's Skull with Pink Poinsetta juxtaposes both flowers and bones. A reconciling of two of her great themes. There's even a skull in this room that resembles the one in Hans Holbein's Ambassadors. I had to view it side on just to see if it played a trick on me. It didn't.

In 1934 she discovered Ghost Ranch, a 'dude ranch' for moneyed visitors to live out their Wild West fantasies. She didn't have much to do with the tourists but it made a great base for her and in 1940 she bought it. The views of the Chama River (1937) and what she called, in humblebrag style, 'My Front Yard' (1941) show why. It must've felt like a slice of Heaven on Earth.

The Black Place out in Navajo country, 150 miles west of Ghost Ranch, looks far more imposing. The artist returned time and again reporting on its permutations and the changes rendered upon it by both light and the seasons. If all you see is a crack then you should know by now how dimly Georgia would view that.

Very. Just as she might if you were to suggest her Green Door painting had anything to do with Shakin' Stevens. It's so pared down it borders on abstraction which is something that's probably never been said about the double denim clad Elvis impersonator from the eighties.

By this time she had a second home, Abiqui, also in New Mexico. From here she painted both Green Door and Pedernal (1945) which was reportedly made in the shadow of World War II. How much that war affected people in remote deserts in the south western corner of the USA I don't know.

The legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams used to come to visit. Who wouldn't? Here's Georgia and Ansel dressed up as if to appear as extras in a John Ford western. Very different to the image you may have in your head of the first female ever to command her own show in New York's MOMA.

That took place in 1946. Fifteen years earlier she painted a series of kachinas. Figures of spirit beings carved in wood or modelled in clay and painted. They're something of a curveball in her career but point to an artist whose talent was as many tentacled as it was mercurial. The below character reminds me of something I once saw at the Barranquilla carnival in Colombia. Or it could just be Mr Chips from Catchphrase after a night on the pop.

1962's Sky with Flat White Cloud, to me, speaks of an artist at ease with herself. Comfortable with her advancing years and content to strip away all extraneous detail from both her life and her work. The simplicity of it and the way it fades into the distance suggest an acceptance of death. It's a warm hug goodbye rather than a cold, shallow grave and it is, like the very best of her work, infused with a rare beauty and a deep respect for the things of nature.

In her long life Georgia O'Keeffe managed to simultaneously look forward to modernism and look back to where we'd all come from. She did this by looking up and around. Hers was quite a journey. You'll be able to enjoy a very small part of it by visiting the Tate. I'd recommend you do.

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