Martin Gayford

Privates on parade

The paintings at the Tate are in between photographical and gynaecological

In 1927, Georgia O’Keeffe announced that she would like her next exhibition to be ‘so magnificently vulgar that all the people who have liked what I have been doing would stop speaking to me’. Perhaps, then, she would approve of the massive retrospective of her work at Tate Modern. This show is, as is frequently the case in the largest suites of galleries on Bankside, considerably too big for its subject. The scale, however, is a matter of institutional overkill. Its vulgarity, magnificent or otherwise, is supplied by O’Keeffe (1887–1986) herself — in a pared-down, high-modernist way.

Resident for much of her long, long life in the New Mexican desert, she prided herself on her all-American toughness. ‘They make me seem like some strange unearthly sort of creature floating in the air,’ she complained in 1922 — ‘they’ being male critics and artists. The fact was, she continued, ‘I like beef steak — and like it rare at that.’

Actually, there was some justification for thinking the early works with which she made her name were on the ethereal side. ‘Music — Pink and Blue No. 1’ (1918) seems to show an arch made in some thin material such as linen or paper, through which a patch of sea- or sky-like blue can be seen.

Such pictures — and others, including ‘Blue and Green Music’ (1919/21) with various undulating waveforms in sickly pale green — might belong to the genre of ‘spiritualist abstraction’, in company with the works of the Swedish artist Hilma af Klint that were shown at the Serpentine earlier this year. There was also, however, from early on, another interpretation of O’Keeffe’s imagery, not so much transcendental as gynaecological. Her paintings, the artist Marsden Hartley noted, ‘are probably as living and shameless private documents as exist’.

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