TUESDAY, OCT. 4
Six years ago I first visited Tate Modern. I was wowed by its ingenuity, a derelict power plant on the south bank of the River Thames converted into a modern art gallery. I didn’t hesitate to revisit this time around.
The Tate Modern was designed by the Swedish architects Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, the 2001 winner of the Pritzker Prize, the ‘Nobel Prize’ of architecture. Their concept of maintaining the industrial motif and juxtaposing it with the artistic is a marvellous idea. Furthermore, they have turned the massive, hollow industrial space in the centre into a welcoming people space, the Turbine Hall. When I got there on an overcast Tuesday morning, I saw people, many are families with children and babies, lay on the massive floor space, yes, actually lying down, to view the mobile, mixed media installation from the ground.
How much more ‘grassroot’ can you get? The symbolism is ingenious as the people space breaks down the barrier of ‘high art’ and ‘public art’. In another area, several large helium-filled fish ‘balloons’ floating in mid-air, kids and adults playing with them. Interactive art, like an invisible sign saying, ‘Please do touch the art objects.’
While most of the collections were free and photography was allowed, I was excited to learn their current event was a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition, paid admission and no photography. Interesting to note that there’s no O’Keeffe works in UK public collections, thus making this exhibition all the more rare and valuable.
Before I entered the exhibition room, I only had one image in my mind: flowers. Georgia O’Keeffe was a painter of flowers, wasn’t she? And with 100 pieces of O’Keeffe’s works on exhibit, lots of flowers. How wrong I was.
Certainly, the cover of this beautifully designed accordion pamphlet uses the iconic O’Keeffe subject of flowers, but I soon found that she was a highly versatile artist, and cerebral in style and subject matter. No photos were allowed in there so I had to take a picture of the pamphlet for you to visualize. For the rest of the post, I’m afraid I’ll have to make do with my clumsy written words to describe my experience with the magnificent visuals.
Here’s a synopsis of the exhibition in a sequence of rooms following the life of O’Keeffe as an artist. And thanks to this compact, informative pamphlet, I’m still learning even after I’ve come home.
1. The Early Years – abstractions in charcoal, made while she was an art teacher in Virginia and Texas. There are colourful watercolours and vivid oil paintings inspired by the landscapes of both States. My fave has to be the Red and Orange Streak, 1919. So here I see Georgia O’Keeffe, the emerging abstract painter.
2. Moved to New York in 1918 and produced more abstraction while exploring other artistic possibilities such as chromesthesia, where musical tones elicit particular colours, “the idea that music can be translated into something for the eye”. This is also the period when she painted more sensory content, and for some, eroticism is evoked. I like this quote: “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs.”
3. O’Keeffe, Stieglitz and their Circle. As muse, collaborator, and finally spouse of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe is presented in photography in this section. I find O’Keeffe’s personal portraits particularly revealing; Stieglitz’s portraits of her all exude a special boldness and independence. Here we see her beginning fondness of clouds, depicted in A Celebration 1924, the year they married. Clouds evolving into petals later?
4. O’Keeffe the New Yorker. I never knew. Here I see her stylistic depiction of the urban cityscape of NYC. O’Keeffe and Stieglitz lived on the 30th floor of a skyscraper, a convenient vantage point to paint tall buildings. “… I think that’s just what the artist of today needs for stimulus.” After the 1929 Wall Street crash, however, she moved out of NYC. The vision of the urban promise dismantled with the market crash.
5. Upstate, New York, Maine, and Canada. Lake George, trees, clouds, apples and leaves. For a change, from metropolitan New York to Nature.
6. Finally, we begin to see her flower paintings. They are huge. The photo of the pamphlet cover above, Jimson Weed/ White Flower 1, 1932, is 48″ x 40″. BTW, I just checked online, that painting is the world’s most expensive painting by a woman. Walmart heiress Alice B. Walton bought it for $44.4 million in 2014. I should have looked at it a while longer. But from the short stop when I stood in front of it, I could see the gradual change of light and shadow on the petals, meticulously painted. Most impressive was the sheer size of it.
Why paint a tiny flower this big? Here’s O’Keeffe’s answer:
“Nobody sees a flower, it’s so small… I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it… I will make even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers…”
7. New Mexico: Taos and Alcalde. Paintings of the vast, horizontal expanse of the land in contrast to the vertical, tall skyscrapers of NYC, earth-built dwellings, crosses, Native American and Spanish colonial features. In Taos O’Keeffe met Ansel Adams and other artists.
8. O’Keeffe found the white bones and animal skulls left on the barren Southwestern desert a worthy subject for her paintings. A sharp, harsh contrast with the soft petals of flowers, but the light and shadow gradients convey the same fondness from the artist’s eyes.
9. Red earth, pink cliff of the landscape in the Southwestern expanse. O’Keeffe discovered Ghost Ranch, a tourist attraction and later bought her first home there. During the 1930’s to the 40’s, she delved into the area with immense passion, especially the flat-top mountains or mesa.
10. White Place and Black Place, two locales she continued to stylize in her painting. From the realism of the earthy desert expanse shifted to more stylized contrast of white and black.
11. The artist continued her focus on bones, in particular, the holes in them; when she lifted them up towards the sky, the blue piercing out from these holes. The bones too are symbols of death and destruction, a parallel of WWII and the death of Stieglitz in 1946.
12. The Southwest and Native American influences on her subjects while living in New Mexico during the 1930’s and 40’s.
13. Lastly, from landscapes to skyscapes. I was confronted with another huge painting, inspired from her airplane travels during the 50’s and 60’s: Sky Above the Clouds III, 1963. Since I couldn’t take any pictures at the exhibition, I just have to do this. Here, take a look at this photo of the pamphlet, section 13 on the right. The painting is on there. Clouds like ice floes against a distant, pinkish sky.
Definitely more than just flowers.
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