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Tanya Barson’s curation of Georgia O’Keefe’s retrospective at the Tate Modern is, let me say it, very bad. I usually dislike curators who bore the viewer with excessive biographical information but this show, in particular, demanded it to avoid the dullness of paintings which, without it, come across as ornamental and meaningless. Structuring the show chronologically, O’Keefe’s images (both her self image and her body of work) end up captive of her husband and gallerist Alfred Sieglitz who pigeonholes her into constructed artistic identity which ends up in commodification.

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The show opens with a pointless and unclear reconstruction of her 1916 show at 291 in New York (the original shown above) which includes a selection of photographic portraits and still lives by Stieglitz where his muse, Georgia, willingly poses as if trying to negotiate her own identity. The works hung nearby belong to her first show for Stieglitz’ gallery in 1917: strange charcoal abstractions and pink and yellow skies, very Rudolf Steiner, with overtones of Kandinsky’s colour theories. His photographs explore the– much-debated – influence on O’Keeffe of Stieglitz and their mutual friend Paul Strand. Rooms full of 1920s botanical forms, spiralling whorls of undergrowth and foliage, give way to New York nocturnes – all swoony moonlight and wrought-iron lampposts – that make you long for the Manhattan of contemporaries such as Charles Sheeler and Joseph Stella.

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But we must put things in perspective. Born on 15 November 1887, O’Keeffe was the eldest daughter of a lower middle class family who decided to be an artist at the age 11. Dogged commitment to this ambition got her to the Art Institute of Chicago at 17, but all the same her apprenticeship was long. A spell in New York at the Art Students League introduced her to the pleasures of an urban social life, and the concomitant realisation that art would require relinquishment as well as ambition. “I first learned to say no when I stopped dancing,” she said. “I liked to dance very much. But if I danced all night, I couldn’t paint for three days.” This flirtation with hedonism is all evident in the way she poses for Stieglitz’s portraits. There is something fake about her and one doesn’t’ know whether she is being fake with us, her husband or with herself.

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After her mother’s death she quits painting and dedicates herself to teaching. She took jobs all over the south, living in deep seclusion in South Carolina. A rural modernist among the cows. Between jobs, she repeatedly returned to education, studying at the University of Virginia and Teachers College in New York. In Manhattan she saw the work of Picasso and Braque and read Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art but, first and foremost, she saw Manhattan art deco and the graphic design of the Madison Avenue adverts which are a big influence in her work.

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Even more influential was her introduction to the revolutionary notions of Arthur Wesley Dow: a mild-mannered professor who generated an innovative approach to art. Inspired by Japanese painting, Dow prioritised composition over imitation, encouraging individual aesthetic decision-making, both on the canvas and in ordinary life. Doing things with style: this became the O’Keeffe creed, affecting everything from how she dressed herself and furnished her houses to what she did with her brush.

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But, at the end of the day, what matters here is what she did with her brush because without reaching abstraction, her art becomes ironically expressionistic by concealing all expression. In this I agree with Laura Cummings (The Guardian) when saying:

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‘But by now, what strikes is the stark disparity between the sensuous imagery and the dust-dead surface. O’Keeffe’s oil paintings turn out to be dull, matte, evenly layered. They have no touch, no relish for paint, no interest in textural distinction. They are as graphic and flat as the millions of posters they have spawned worldwide; in fact, on the strength of this first major show outside America, they look just as good, if not better, in reproduction. This may be a studied resistance to the richness of the medium. Or it may be that the diaphanous transitions of her watercolours do not translate into oil paint. But it makes those deliberately worked shifts from one form or colour to another look as artificial as a Dalí or Magritte, comparisons that particularly come to mind before the many paintings of animal skulls. Sun-bleached skulls in the foreground against distant hills; skulls accessorised with blossoms; skulls floating surreally in the blue sky above the desert, with or without blossoms: she is at her worst with these trite repetitions’.

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Tanya Barson’s attempts to detach her work from the obvious vaginal allusions as she places O’Keefe’s career in constant dialogue with Stieglitz makes her painting dull to the point of having to ask ourselves if her success wasn’t due to the fact that that self effacement of sorts (to the point of making the brushwork disappear) become an allegory for a time where graphic designs threatens to replace art. From this point of view, she is closer to Warhol (with whom she interacted) than Rothko.

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Turned into a bee, the visitor jumps from flower to flower and gets dizzy. The flowers, landscapes and still lives get increasingly boring in the next two rooms. But there is a point where her art seems to thematise boredom. In fact, her iconography embraces walls and dead ends. Of course, Parson does not tell us that, shortly before those paintings, Stieglitz would start a relationship with a younger woman. O’ Keefe who had tried so hard to be loved and fit in escapes to New Mexico where she tries to finds herself against the dead end of the deserted landscape. Separation helped, as did the dizzying, wonderful sense of being wholeheartedly committed to her needs, the demands of her taste and talent. All the same, the love triangle took a toll, reaching its crisis in 1932.

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Her paintings of walls and dry landscapes are expressions of this state of mind and at this point one can appreciate her work not as a celebration of life but as death drive. She wanted to keep busy not to think so she accepted a commission for painting a mural in the women’s powder room at the new Radio City Music Hall. She agreed to the project despite minimal payment because she’d long fancied the challenge of painting “big”, summoning the largest of her visions. Stieglitz, who loathed public art and liked to tightly control his now wife’s fees, was livid when he heard, co-opting his friends to simultaneously inform O’Keeffe of her idiocy and persuade her to be more friendly to his mistress. Again she complied and her work becomes dull (and commercial?) again. Her expression is her lack of expression.. The question is here what did America see in this dullness and expression of its vernacular. J A T