Her masterful paintings blended the Baroque with the strange, says Sarah Churchwellby Sarah Churchwell / July 14, 2016 / Leave a comment
In January 1923, a 35-year-old painter named Georgia O’Keeffe mounted her first major exhibition of 100 works, including oils, watercolours, pastels and drawings. One of the people who attended the opening in New York was Marcel Duchamp, whose display of a urinal he called Fountain had caused an uproar in the art world six years earlier. Duchamp approached her, O’Keeffe recalled many years later, and demanded, “But where is your self-portrait? Everyone has a self-portrait in his first show.” O’Keeffe would continue to defy expectations for the rest of her remarkable career—not only about the traditional self-absorption of the artist, but also about “his” presumptive gender.
O’Keeffe’s career had been launched in 1916, with a small exhibition of charcoal drawings at Alfred Stieglitz’s gallery 291. Precisely 100 years later, the largest exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s works ever mounted in Britain will appear at the Tate Modern this summer (6th July to 30th October), following the opening of its new £260m extension and complete gallery rehang. Featuring over 100 works, the exhibition will include Jimson Weed, White Flower No 1 (1932), purchased in 2014 for $44m, the largest sum ever paid for a painting by a woman—a qualification that tells its own story. O’Keeffe’s gender has always been a focal point in a field still dominated by male artists. “Men put me down as the best woman painter,” O’Keeffe famously once said. “I think I’m one of the best painters.”
America agreed, making her one of the most exhibited, reviewed and collected artists in its history; plaudits during her lifetime included the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest honour awarded to an American civilian. Britain, by contrast, does not have a single work by O’Keeffe in any public gallery, an astonishing gap that this exhibition aims to address. Tate Modern’s director of exhibitions has said that he hopes in particular to challenge the clichés that have defined O’Keeffe’s public image, especially the attention paid to her paintings of flowers that suggest female genitalia, such as Black Iris III (1926).
In the United States, O’Keeffe’s recurring motifs of the Southwestern landscape are just as clichéd—ubiquitous images of bleached animal skulls and red flowers in the desert. These are paintings about icons that have become icons, and becoming an icon flattens a work of art in the…