Review: Georgia O'Keeffe, Tate Modern 'Moments of Brilliance'

18/07/2016 14:55


The Tate's continuing commitment to platforming female artists continues apace with this Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition, the Tate Modern's big summer show, and the biggest retrospective of her work to be held outside of America.

And certainly the scope of the show is impressive, with works from across the full-length of Georgia's career, including her early work in 1920s New York, through her exploration of the New Mexico landscapes, and on to her large-scale paintings of horizons in the 1960s.

And, of course, the flowers.

Georgia O'Keeffe will forever be associated with her close-cropped studies of flowers. And rightly so as these are not just iconic pieces, but they are wonderful too. In some, the detail is exquisite - the folds in the petals, the developing hues - and in others, the magnification is so close that the piece becomes almost abstract.


And this use of nature as a source of abstraction continues in Georgia's other still life works from the time, such as leaves and shells, and in her sudden love affair with the ocean (Georgia only left the USA for the first time in 1932) which led to some glorious works, such as Nature Forms - Gaspe, 1932, where Georgia's experience of a storm at sea is reflected in a beautiful swirl of the most delicate hues of blues and greens.

The big draw is, understandably, Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932 - the most expensive work by a female artist ever sold at auction (snapped up a couple of years ago for an impressive $44 million) and it is probably the sharpest piece in Georgia's catalogue of works, with its clear, clean lines and simple striking palette of greens and whites, as opposed to the softer, less defined lines and warmer hues in works such as Dark Iris No. 1, 1927, and Oriental Poppies, 1927.

However, their perennial interpretation as an exploration of female sex and sexuality infuriated Georgia. So much so that the constant framing of these beautiful studies of flowers as vaginas eventually led to Georgia turning her back on them completely, replacing them as the objects of her attention with the desert landscape of New Mexico, and all its colours and features.

It's a real shame as, for all the sumptuous colours in some of these later landscapes, and the inventiveness she brought such as using the holes in the scattered pelvic bones from dead cattle as the lens to see the world, the flowers remain her best work.


Georgia made her first extended visit to New Mexico in 1929 and the place made an instant and lasting impression. "As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I'd never seen anything like it before." And that love of the distinctive geography and landscape, with its mountains and valleys, and add to that the extra factors of the Native American and Spanish influences, and the dramatic effects of the scorching sun, and you can see why Georgia came back again and again to paint.

Much like the flowers, here she was again using nature as inspiration. There are some wonderful landscapes here, such as Black Mesa Landscape, 1930, with its earthy reds and browns, and My Front Yard, Summer, 1941, with the scorching sun bleaching the landscape. But the quality isn't sustained and you do find yourself wondering past some rather forgettable paintings of animal skulls, ram's horns, and large Catholic crosses.

There are moments of real beauty and brilliance in this show but, sadly, I'm not sure this retrospective does Georgia many favours as the consistency in her work isn't there. It does dip a bit. And add to that the slightly eye-watering £19 admission charge and it's a tricky one to blanket recommend to everyone.

Nevertheless, I am a fan of Georgia's work and there are enough moments here for me to say that I enjoyed this show.

For a glimpse inside the show, have a look at the photos on my Facebook page.

Tate Modern, London, to October 30, 2016.
Admission £19.

Image Credits:
1. Georgia O'Keeffe 1887-1986Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 1932Oil paint on canvas48 x 40 inchesCrystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, USA. Photography by Edward C. Robison III© 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/DACS, London
2. Georgia O'Keeffe 1887-1986 Oriental Poppies 1927 Oil paint on canvas 762 x 1016 mm The collection of the Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis. © 2016 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum/ DACS, London.
3.Georgia O'Keeffe Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie's II 1930 Oil on canvas mounted on board 24 1/4 x 36 1/4 (61.6 x 92.1) Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum