Georgia O’Keefe has always been an enigma to me. An original maverick in the guise of simple dress and Wisconsin etiquette. Fiercely independent and resistant to the cliches surrounding her art. A female painter highly regarded in the company of other male avant-garde artists. There certainly wasn’t many of her like around in the early 1920s.
The Tate Modern’s new show brings a century of her art to the public and the opening room heralds a new chapter in O’Keefe’s life when she moves to New York and meets Alfred Stieglitz. Straight away you can see the influences that affect the way in which she approaches her drawings and paintings, ‘Blue Hill No II’ and ‘No 17 Special’ instantly catch my eye.
Particularly inspired by the photography of Paul Strand and Stieglitz (also a gallerist and later, O’Keefe’s husband). Their flattened images of still life compositions into abstract shapes transformed the way in which she viewed imagery around her. Her interest in Synaesthesia, the stimulation of one sense by another also inspired much of her early work. In ‘Line & Curve’ (1927) you can begin to see the relationship in her paintings as they tap into the sensory magic of form to music, colour and composition. Naturally O’Keefe tapped into her feminine qualities, producing paintings such as ‘Grey Lines with Black, Blue & Yellow’ and further, in her flower-abstractions. The exhibition features one of her most famous, the impassioned ‘Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1’ (1932) (below).
|Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1|
However there are ‘voids’ that seem to occupy a central position in her paintings which demonstrate a singular independence within them that can’t be compartmentalised in my eyes. As much as critics at the time sought to do so. As much as she was enamoured with this style of painting, she began to introduce hard edged and cubist-inspired abstractions into her work. During the 1920s ushered in a desire to paint the streets of New York. These are significantly more ‘macho’ and stylised, ‘New York
Street with Moon’ (1925) (left), showing a unison in the photography being created by Stieglitz at the time.
Throughout the decades you can see her overriding style of flowing lines and abstracted shapes coming to light. Her stays at Lake George reinvigorate this in her paintings, moving once again away from the hard lines of the city and once more, to a focus on the outdoors and natural landscape, ‘From the Lake No 3’ (below). Up to this point you can see that different locations and the people who surround her changes her style of work according to where she is. But O’Keefe always seems to come back to her original style of blurring the boundaries between abstraction and representation.
Up to the 1950s the advent of modern photography is really apparent in her paintings. Her flower and still-life paintings show an intense study of form. Close-up views and magnified cropping come to forefront, ‘White Iris’ (1930) (below). There are many black and white photographs of O’Keeffe, taken by Stieglitz in the exhibition, which provides a much needed insight into how they lived/worked together and took inspiration from each other.
Frequent trips to New Mexico encouraged more representational landscape painting, with the occasional abstracted views, ‘Mountain, New Mexico’ (1931) and ‘Black Mesa Landscape’ (1930) contrast against her more dainty and stylised ‘Taos Pueblo’ (1929-34) (all below). It’s her love of animal skulls that forms another substantial period in her painting life, and its this insight that heralds the beginning of another advent of modern landscape painting, ‘Mules Skull with Pink Ponsietta’ (1936). By incorporating these bones into her paintings she flits between the realms of abstraction and realism, ‘From the Faraway, Nearby’ (1937). They even have a ‘dream-like’ quality to them akin
This period of her career allows her to switch again back to her original abstracted style. She paints things over and over again. In ‘Black Place and White Place’ she observes strange mountain formations that instills her resolute focus on form and shape. Her unceasing understanding of photography once again appears in her later skull paintings. The empty eye holes in the bone skulls provide a new source of looking at the blue sky, ‘Pelvis I’ (1944) (below).
Drawing remained a constant feature of her working process. The ability to condense the world around her into a few succinct lines, synaesthesing the landscape down to its essential elements.
|My illustration of
‘Black Cross with Stars & Blue’
Always inspired by technology and new ways of seeing, frequent plane trips took her work in yet another new direction. Aerial views of the land and rivers of New Mexico meant O’Keefe had the perfect material to create paintings that harks back, once again, to her earliest works. The one things that remains the same in her work is how it is always rooted in the direct experience of the landscape. Towards the end of her painting career, she was inspired by Colour-Field painting and produced huge modernist views of abstracted landscapes ‘Winter Road I’ (1963) and skyscapes ‘Sky Above Clouds’ (1963).
O’Keefe was a direct champion of the new modern era and embraced technological innovations, using them as a source of inspiration. Always willing to try new ways of working. Her return to Synaesthesia shows an inherent creative quality within her to express the emotion of being in that landscape. Whatever her subject, be it flowers, still-life, mountains, skyscrapers or fruit, she captured a revelatory ‘essence’ in her paintings that epitomised the era and place she lived in.
|‘Blue Hill No II’|
|‘No 17 Special’|
|‘Grey Lines with Black, Blue & Yellow’|
|My quick-fire illustration whilst visiting the show|
|Cala Lilies on Red|
|Close-up of ‘White Iris’|
|Visitors viewing O’Keefe’s New Mexico paintings|
|Black Mesa Landscape|
|Black Place II|
|Mules Skull with Pink Ponsiettas|
|Visitors looking at ‘From the Faraway, Nearby’|
|Winter Road I|
|Sky Above Clouds|
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to take my own photographs during the visit to the show so you’ll have to excuse the lower quality of some of these photos. Hopefully it will still give you a taste of her work and varied styles throughout her long career.