Jimson weed, a cow’s skull, bare mountainsides scored by flash floods: revelations of beauty in badlands mark the work of American artist Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). This is ‘nature’ art from a Modernist sensibility — strong, simplified form shocked into being by a lush palette. O’Keeffe may once have been drawn to the dark hearts of flowers, but she became a desert geek par excellence, in love with geological strata and stripped skeletons in the Martian landscapes of New Mexico. “The bones,” she wrote, “seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even though it is vast and empty and untouchable”. Much as early nineteenth-century art of the sublime — in tandem with explosive discoveries in geology — shifted Europe’s responses to its own wilderness from repulsion to awe, O’Keeffe taught us to see new worlds in the New World.
As I’m reminded again and again at the eponymous show at London’s Tate Modern, this was an artist formidably focused on subjects not as an element in a composition but as the main event. Many pieces are like tightly cropped photographs. Her marriage to engineer-turned-photographer Alfred Stieglitz and friendships with his peers, such as Paul Strand, steeped her in the technology’s possibilities. Like them, O’Keeffe relished extreme close-ups and ‘long shots’ framed to emphasise form.
Her lifelong immersion in nature began on a Wisconsin dairy farm. The youthful O’Keeffe was encouraged in her bent towards art, studying at Chicago’s prestigious Art Institute School and the Art Students League in New York. In 1912 she ventured to west Texas for two years to teach art. Her aesthetic — severe and sinuous, hovering between abstract and representational — began to emerge as she exulted in the vivid geomorphology of Palo Duro canyon (a “lone place”, she noted approvingly) and experimented with watercolour. Back on the East Coast, she studied under the Japanese-influenced artist Arthur Wesley Dow, who emphasised abstract patterns and using the “facts of nature to express an idea or emotion”. She began to produce radical abstracts in charcoal, which would find their way to Stieglitz’s New York gallery and kickstart her career.
The charcoals on show at Tate Modern are powerful evocations of unrolling fern fronds or the intricate lace of a cloud. But in Red and Orange Streak (1919) O’Keeffe flexes different experimental muscles. The painting’s bold arc is a visual rendering of cattle lowing. O’Keeffe’s fascination with music and synaesthesia (which she shared with Wassily Kandinsky) played out in several works, whose many-layered, biomorphic shapes can be read as sonic motifs. In Blue and Green Music (1919/21), subtly shaded waves, ripples and bars surge like a visual symphony.
O’Keeffe’s life in 1920s New York with Stieglitz was an exploration of urban canyonlands. She became a portrait painter of iconic skyscrapers, deploying stark chiaroscuro and a burgeoning command of form. But like a weed cracking the concrete jungle, nature breaks in. The lunar ‘eye’ in O’Keeffe’s New York Street with Moon (1925) gazes down through a jagged space between buildings at its brash mimics, a streetlamp and traffic light. There is always, in O’Keeffe, a search for an authentic source. The flower paintings (many executed upstate at idyllic Lake George) dive straight in — Oriental Poppies (1927) is a drenching in scarlet, orange and near-black. By working in extreme close-up in this and other pieces such as Dark Iris No I (1929), O’Keeffe frames floral anatomy as pure form. Few look at flowers, she noted, because “to see takes time”; her aim was to surprise the viewer into taking that time.
O’Keeffe’s pull towards New Mexico began in 1929 and crystallised some two decades later, when she moved there permanently after Stieglitz’s death. Her house facing the flat-topped peak Pedernal (‘Flint Hill’) and the deserts round it became a crucible for her visionary ideas and creative energies. She immersed in landscape and skyscape, sleeping on the roof nights and walking, camping and working in her mobile studio, an ingeniously repurposed Ford Model A. The Southwest, not least New Mexico, had long been an artistic hotbed. But O’Keeffe held her own among illustrious contemporaries probing its riches, such as the great nature photographer Ansel Adams.
She became a connoisseur of bones, discovering their exquisite formal possibilities. Horse’s Skull on Blue (1931) displays its subject like a jewel on satin. Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettia (1936) is a Southwestern memento mori, one of many paintings juxtaposing blooms and animal skulls in a strange dialogue between life and death. Was she edging into Surrealism or commenting on the ecological calamity of the Dust Bowl then raging on America’s southern plains? That art-world debate hardly signifies. Despite their massive overexposure, these anatomic portraits seem perennially fresh. From the Faraway, Nearby (1937) fills the canvas with a complex interlacing of antlers sprouting from a deer’s skull; it rides over rolling hills like a multi-perspective meditation on the power of yearning.
Others in O’Keeffe’s New Mexican works play with echoes in organic and inorganic form. The cascades of wrinkled, torn and folded red sandstone in The Mountain, New Mexico (1931) and Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie’s II (1930) resemble vast piles of offal. And the avalanche of paintings she produced from 1936 to 1949 in ‘Black Place’ — the Bisti Badlands in Navajo territory — intently probe voids and masses in hills she compared to a “mile of elephants”.
Georgia O’Keeffe is an engrossing encapsulation of this great Modernist’s work on the centenary of her first show. It cannot showcase the vast output of her 70-year career, but it does reveal how far she travelled. In the 1924 Celebration — a response to Equivalents, Stieglitz’s series of abstract cloudscapes — she painted bulbous clouds in restless confusion, like goldfish in a jar. The show’s last painting, finished nearly four decades later, is Sky Above the Clouds III. Its aerial view of flattened cloudforms streaming out to the horizon is, I feel, O’Keeffe freed into the “faraway” — as she put it, “keeping the unknown always beyond”. After her long grappling with the primal in wild America, she was still out there discovering new worlds.
Georgia O’Keeffe runs at Tate Modern, Bankside, London SE1 9TG until 30 October.
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