Friday, August 12, 2016

Georgia O'Keeffe

Yesterday I went to the Georgia O'Keeffe retrospective at the Tate Modern.

O'Keeffe is one of my favorite artists. I love her reliance on natural forms and brilliant color, and her mysterious aesthetic. She did indeed have an eye like no one else's. And this exhibit was not a disappointment -- I took my time and even rented an audio guide, which I almost never do, and I was there for two hours. I got a sore back from standing so long.

I first got interested in O'Keeffe when I was a child -- I had a game called "Masterpiece" in which players bid for paintings that could either turn out to be priceless or forgeries. The O'Keeffe painting featured in the game, "Cow's Skull with Calico Roses," fascinated me. Bones! What kid doesn't like bones? And what artist would paint them? I had to learn more!

When I was in high school, and I got my first job at McDonald's, I used one of my paychecks to buy a book of O'Keeffe's paintings, accompanied by text in her own words. She died just a few years later, in 1986 at the age of 98, and I saved her obituary from Time magazine. I still have it, laminated.

In 1987 my family went to a major O'Keeffe show at the National Gallery in Washington -- in fact I still have the flyer (above). I bought a poster of that painting, "Music, Pink and Blue No. 2," and it hung in my various apartments for about 15 years, until it got too faded.

In the early '90s, I read Roxana Robinson's biography of O'Keeffe, which taught me about her training, her early work as an art teacher (can you imagine having Georgia O'Keeffe as your art teacher?!) and her life with Alfred Stieglitz and their circle of artists -- John Marin, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove.

Then, in 1995, I went to New Mexico with my mom, and we went not only to the Georgia O'Keeffe museum in Santa Fe but to Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch, where she lived. Her Abiquiu house wasn't open at the time -- apparently tours are available now, through the O'Keeffe museum -- and Ghost Ranch was a Presbyterian conference center where her house was off limits. But it was thrilling to see the landscape in which she worked. I took photos of the adobe church at Ranchos de Taos, which she painted, and the Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain that appears in many of her canvases.

I saw a smaller O'Keeffe show in Tampa in 2005, and I've seen many of the paintings from yesterday's show in other places. One of them, a New York abstraction, is usually housed at the art museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., where I've seen it multiple times. It's cool to see a painting again -- like visiting an old friend!

My favorites are still her bones -- immense skulls hovering over the landscape, or pelvis bones held aloft, the brilliant blue sky shining through. And I saw several paintings yesterday that I don't recall ever seeing before -- of kachina dolls, and autumn leaves.

Nowadays, when people think of O'Keeffe, they often think of sexualized, feminist or Freudian interpretations of her work -- suggestions that her abstractions of music or flowers were inspired by female anatomy. O'Keeffe herself denied that, and in fact the Tate show continually emphasizes her resistance to those ideas. Which is interesting, because she's not a prude (she posed nude for Stieglitz, after all, and his nudes are part of the show). She just genuinely didn't believe she was painting the female body.

Anyway, it was a great show. I had a terrific time.

(Photo: The riverfront plaza outside the Tate, yesterday.)


  1. Recently, I watched a documentary about Georgia O'Keeffe on the BBC. I was magnetised. The focus was chiefly upon her years in New Mexico and the imagery she returned to time after time. I see the exhibition is on until the end of October. If I happen to be in London with two hours to spare I shall see it. Thanks for the heads up.

  2. I used to buy art calendars when they went on sale after the year turned and rotate the pictures in my classroom. Like you, I remember pictures from my youth and they feel like old friends when I see them in a gallery. I hoped to give a little of that experience to my high school students. O'Keefe was one of my favorites.
    I enjoyed traveling with you through your O'Keefe past.

  3. What an amazing day you had! So really- she claims she didn't paint the female body?
    I believe what she said.
    But seriously?

  4. She's one of my favorites as well. I love her work and I guess have been influenced by it. my botanica erotica series I guess though it wasn't a conscious thing. someone once told me that i reminded her of Georgia O'Keefe. I thought it a great compliment (still do really) at the time. my hair was very long and thin and because of where I live I usually kept it twisted up in a bun or in a braid. That day I had it in a bun. when I thought about it later I thought, gee, O'Keefe is a very old woman and I'm only in my 50s. I got my hair cut short not long after.

  5. This has got to be the best review of an exhibit I've ever read! It's on my list of things to see while I'm in London. I too love her work. Last year there was a show of her work at the Heard Museum here and I saw the Kachina paintings for the first time. Her museum in Santa Fe was one of my favorite places in that city.

  6. one of the primary reasons for my trip coming up!

  7. I've never actually seen any of her work (at least not that I associated with her name) until now. When I look at the wide variety of examples that you linked to, I find some of it incredibly beautiful and yet some of it I have the opposite reaction, which is kind of strange! For instance, I love the one you show that you had a poster of, and anything like it. She certainly had a long and productive life.

  8. I've always loved her work as visually interesting and in some cases compelling. I enjoyed your recollections and wish I could see this. Have a great weekend.

  9. I love Georgia O'Keefe too. Definitely one of my top three favorite artists, and the first one that comes to mind when anyone asks. I also love her face, as captured again and again by Stieglitz, who I once wrote a paper on in college. I came away from that paper more fascinated by the man's wife than the man himself. Her face was a work of art. As for the Freudian interpretations of her floral work, perhaps what's more true is that nature itself is a mysterious mimic. Thank you so much for sharing your experience of the show.