Georgia O’Keeffe has come to London, like a bracing American desert wind rippling the River Thames.
An exhibition of more than 100 works opening this week at Tate Modern is the American art icon’s biggest-ever show outside the United States.
Curators hope it will surprise visitors who know the artist mainly for her giant flowers and sun-bleached animal skulls. The exhibition also offers O’Keeffe the pioneering abstract artist, O’Keeffe the surrealist and O’Keeffe who painted New York as well as New Mexico.
Cody Hartley, director of curatorial affairs at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, says the Tate show is “the most important O’Keeffe exhibition in a generation.”
“The exhibition has gathered the most important works from O’Keeffe’s career and covers the whole breadth of her creativity,” he said at a preview on Monday.
O’Keeffe, who had her first major exhibition a century ago and died in 1986 aged 98, had an exceptionally long career. It took her from her native Wisconsin to bohemian New York and to desert New Mexico, whose fiery landscapes inspired her later work.
But she is best known – through images that adorn countless posters and postcards – for giant flowers and sinuous, curved abstracts that were often given an erotic interpretation by both male critics and feminist writers.
O’Keeffe was unimpressed by the analysis.
“When people read erotic symbols in my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs,” she said.
Flowers are certainly prominent in Tate’s exhibition, which has borrowed extensively from the O’Keeffe Museum and other North American collections. (It’s a sign of a trans-Atlantic divide that no public British museum or gallery owns an O’Keeffe).
The exhibition includes the large floral study “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1,” which sold at auction in 2014 for $44 million. That’s a record for a female artist, though the label is not one O’Keeffe liked.
“She didn’t like boxes,” Hartley said. “She didn’t like it when the men tried to put her in a box. She didn’t like it when the women tried to put her in a box.”
The thread that runs through her career – from the stark abstract charcoals at the start of the exhibition to the aerial images of clouds from above at the end – is a fascination with the American landscape in all its variety.
As a young teacher in Texas, O’Keeffe depicted the state’s “wide empty country”; in New York she painted angular skyscrapers and the busy East River. For years she spent summers on Lake George in upstate New York, painting in a blue-green palette in contrast to the burnt tones of New Mexico.
She visited the southwestern state in 1929, and it was love at first sight.
“When she reached New Mexico, she felt at home,” exhibition curator Tanya Barson said. “She said, ‘Once I got there, that was mine.’ She felt this sense of belonging in New Mexico that she hadn’t felt in the east.”
In New Mexico, images of flowers were replaced by animal skulls, which O’Keeffe rendered beautiful rather than macabre. One of the exhibition’s star works is “From the Faraway, Nearby,” a lavishly antlered skull in a mountainous landscape tinged blue, pink and orange.
It’s an exotic image for Europeans, but Hartley said that despite her “thoroughly American” subject matter, O’Keeffe is an artist of the world.
“Abstraction and a sort of distillation of the essence of any given place or any given subject are at the heart of what she does,” he said. “She gives us a sense of seeing our world in a new way.”
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The exhibition runs to Oct. 30. It moves to Bank Austria Kunstforum in Vienna from Dec. 7 to March 26, and the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto from April to June 2017.