Saturday, October 22, 2016

big sky: Georgia O'Keeffe at the Tate Modern

Like the Joseph Cornell retrospective, this turned out to be unexpectedly personal and affecting. Like any dedicated artist, I knew a little about Georgia O'Keeffe. I knew she lived a long time, painted flowers and skulls with great beauty and skill, lived in the American Southwest, and was a feminist icon. Mostly, though, I knew her as my mother's favourite artist.

My Front Yard, Summer 1941

The last major O'Keeffe show in London was at the Hayward Gallery, in 1995. This year the Tate Modern presented a massive exhibition of her work, celebrating 100 years since her first show at '291', her husband Alfred Stieglitz's gallery in New York City. Londoners and tourists alike were so excited. Reviews from art critics poured in, raving about the scope of the exhibition and how much it revealed about O'Keeffe's art and thoughts.

Georgia O'Keeffe 1920, by Alfred Stieglitz

I dithered about it all summer. I thought I 'knew' what she was about. I was actually more interested in the Sunken Cities exhibit at the British Museum. But I thought about my mom, and how much I would have loved to go with her.

From the Lake No. 1 1924

Mom also lived in the American Southwest for a while. Years ago I visited her in Sedona, Arizona, and was struck by the raw beauty of the place and the surprising diversity of life in the desert. (I was also struck by how often I had to put on moisturising cream. My skin was thirstier than I was!)

Red Hills and Bones 1941

She always talks about 'big sky', and how she couldn't enjoy living in a crowded city for too long, especially ones like Manila and the more central areas of NYC where buildings seem to go up for miles, blocking the light. Skyscrapers are well-named: they cut the sky into pieces, and natural light becomes a privilege to hoard instead of a public resource to share.

New York Street with Moon 1925

Georgia O'Keeffe was a master of big sky. She excelled at big everything: her flowers were drawn as if from a few inches away, their textures fleshy and lush enough to invite the Freudian misreadings she was so annoyed about her whole life.

Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1 1932

Her landscapes were monumental, her skulls almost threatening in their vitality. Far from being inanimate, the objects she painted emit a sense of energy.

Kachina 1934

Like my friend after seeing Joseph Cornell with me, I left the exhibit feeling closer to my mother. I had seen so many elements of her in O'Keeffe's life and work, and now that I'd learned so much, I couldn't wait to talk to her. Now it's one more thing we have experienced together, somehow.

Calla Lilies on Red 1928

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