About half-way through Georgia O’Keeffe’s exhibition at Tate Modern I began to wonder if, perhaps, the Tate ought to have promoted the show as a group exhibition since it included so much work by other artists including her long-term partner, Edward Stieglitz, and her admirers Edward Weston and Ansel Adams in New Mexico. The cross-over with these photographers cannot just be explained in terms of their common subject matter. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to compare O’Keeffe’s work to Stieglitz’s pictures of skyscrapers in New York or Ansel Adam’s extraordinary Moonrise, Hernandez’, which is a nocturnal photographs of the church that was one of her frequent subjects. As the curators point out, O’Keeffe’s debt to photography is not just confined to the influence of Paul Strand on her use of flattened perspectives or her adoption of a decorative use of light and shade. It is rather because , as she wrote, she had a habit of ‘seeing the world like a photographer’, thus anticipating by more than half a century Susan Sontag’s claim that she found no need to take photographs because she was always busy framing imaginary ones in her head.
One of the other revelations of the show was the similarity of O’Keeffe’s early works to Art Deco. She may have shared the simplified geometry of her paintings with other American Modernists such as Charles Sheeler. Yet at times her work had an almost mechanical feel that reminded me of the cold, ceramic-like surfaces of Tamara de Lempicka. What saved O’Keeffe’s paintings from over-stylisation was her apparent interest in developing an art of national identity. In this she was not alone. The same could be said about Thomas Hart Benton or Aaron Copeland’s cowboy themes or the scenes of rural life taken by photographers such as Dorothea Lange in the Dust Bowl. Indeed, from the 1930s onwards the search for imagery rooted in the land appears to have been ubiquitous. It can be found in Moore and Hepworth’s response to the contemporary fashion for archaeology in England or the landscapes that Nash, Piper, Bawden and Ravilious painted on the south coast. It is also analogous to the work of Rita Angus in New Zealand or Margaret Preston in Australia, who in the latter case shared O’Keeffe interest in rethinking the often maligned practice of flower painting.
The common factor among all these artists was their desire to avoid the contemporary ‘one-size-fits-all’ preoccupation with international geometric abstraction. In O’Keeffe’s case, she did this in part by adopting a quasi-religious manner that raised familiar scenes such as her dark and light canyons or the church at Taos to the level of an epiphany. Once again a comparison can be made to the work of Rita Angus. This is because there seems an obvious comparison between the Christmas-card-like clarity of the cross at Taos and the portrait of herself that Angus painted as the Virgin Mary.
Such comparisons are more interesting than the frequent comparisons of her flower paintings to female genitalia – an allusion that O’Keeffe was always eager to deny and which she said had more to do with the minds of her critics than with her works. The curators endorse her denial. However, in rebutting the arguments of earlier feminist artists such as Judy Chicago, they play down the fact that O’Keeffe’s abstractions from the landscapes are comparatively small and avoid dramatic statements or a dominant central image in ways that distinguished her work from the more obviously self-regarding male Abstract Expressionist painters that followed her.
In fact the argument that O’Keeffe’s work was ‘feminist’ in that it created a more dispersed and less phallocentric aesthetic now seem slightly old hat. What is certain is that she created a succinct and iconic vision of America that is all the more remarkable for embracing the skyscrapers of New York, the landscapes of New England and the rocky canyons of the American south west.
Gerald Deslandes, OCA Tutor.
On 10 September, OCA Tutor Bryan Eccleshall will be holding a study visit at the Tate Modern, London to view the work of Georgia O’Keeffe. See Bryan’s blog post here for more about the visit.