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Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern

The most scenic route to the Tate Modern is over the London Millennium Footbridge. The narrow bridge curves like a spine and wobbles over the Thames River. Leaving St. Paul’s Cathedral’s classical baroque dome behind, you walk towards the industrial block that is one of the largest modern art museums in the world. On the other side of the river, a declaration in large, block letters peers from the outer wall of the Tate and draws you into the museum:


I wondered about this announcement as I walked closer to the brown building that used to be a power station before its conversion into a museum. I was on my way to see the Georgia O’Keefe (1887 – 1986) retrospective. Did it mean to say that as art changes, it changes us? Or do we change independently? Would we not change if it wasn’t for art? Was this a statement about the power of art? Of change? Of cause-and-effect? Of the inevitability of time’s imprint?

I thought, maybe the witty phrase wasn’t plastered on the museum’s wall to mean anything. Maybe, it existed merely as a hipsterish marketing ruse to entice tourists crossing the millennium bridge. I was on my way to the museum anyway, but the phrase stayed with me throughout my visit. As I walked among O’Keeffe’s flowers, mountain ranges, lakes, and bones, I wondered about this great American icon and how her art changed us.

Georgia O’Keeffe, White Calla Lilies on Red, 1928,

Georgia O’Keeffe, White Calla Lilies on Red, 1928,

Flowers or Vaginas? A “Feminine” Female Artist

The Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective seemed to have one message: “People saw vaginas in Georgia O’Keefe’s flower paintings. She said they are not.”

Despite her insistence otherwise, O’Keeffe’s work was viewed to represent erotic content, positing her as essentially a “female” artist and her paintings to have “feminine” qualities. (Needless to say, that didn’t help her to be taken more seriously.)

The exhibit opens with a presentation of this mistaken interpretation. The introductory text states that the curation aims “to dispel the clichés that persist about O’Keeffe’s painting, emphasizing instead the pioneering nature and breadth of her career.

And the cliché becomes embedded in the visitor’s mind. Inevitably, the eye wanders and looks for sexual underpinnings to negate in her urban paintings of New York City or paintings of the New Mexican desert. Once implanted, the idea sticks to the imagination and even the artist herself can’t suck it dry.

In the exhibit room 6, Tate curators quoate O’Keeffe regarding her flowers:

Nobody sees a flower—really—it is so small—we haven’t the time—and to see takes time… So I said to myself—I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me, but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it—it will make even busy new Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers… Well—I made you take time to look… and when you took time… you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower—and I don’t.

 Photograph of Georgia O'Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz in 1918.

Photograph of Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz in 1918.

The negation of this misinterpretation continues to give it strength. The exhibit at the Tate—and most articles written about it—continue to revolve around misguided hermeneutics. What should have remained a footnote in the career of an artist who created for over seven decades still stands at the forefront of her artistic persona. A pioneering artist of American modernism, she painted America the urban and America the landscape—not just flowers.

As Susan Sontag explains, modern theory of art continues to demand that art must “say something.” Even the seasoned art critic finds it hard to understand a work of art without getting stuck on its content—in this case O’Keeffe’s flowers. And when we focus on the content, interpretation follows.

Everything in nature resembles one thing or another and the human mind has infinite capacity to make the comparisons. Put in the right context and viewed with a deviant eye, any object can be construed to have sexual connotations. Tall buildings are phallic, so are pencils, knives, water bottles, cigarettes…  What else could color-rich, intricate, and quintessentially feminine flowers of O’Keeffe represent if not female sexuality?

As in Gertrude Stein’s oft-quoted phrase, “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.” And O’Keeffe’s flowers are flowers are flowers are flowers. Susan_Sontag_Against_Interpretation BC

As Sontag writes in Against Interpratation:

 “…real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.”

In tragic irony, this post perpetuates the misinterpretation that the artist fought against for six decades through its very mention of it. Much like the retrospective exhibition at the Tate.

What I loved the most from the exhibit was O’Keeffe’s paintings of the New Mexican desert and mountain ranges. Her hills are dark and light, curvy and sharp. The earthy colors evoke a sense of aliveness in the mountains, as if they are breathing insides under the skin. I wish I would have seen them without having first encountered Tate’s reiteration of the obsession about her flowers.

I left the exhibit unsatisfied, not by O’Keeffe but by the curators. What drove Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistic statement? What was her point of view? The vague answer this curation gave: not vaginas.

“Art changes we change.” Sometimes.

Tate Modern from the London Millennium Footbridge "Art Changes We Change"

Tate Modern from the London Millennium Footbridge “Art Changes We Change”

Georgia O’Keeffe is at Tate Modern until October 30, 2016. All said, it’s worth the £17.20 to see her paintings in the flesh.