'Oriental Poppies' (1927) by Georgia O'Keefe
'Oriental Poppies' (1927) by Georgia O'Keefe © Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum

America’s challenge to Europe, painting’s answer to photography, female identity asserted against the male gaze: several major strands of 20th-century art converge uniquely in the work and life of Georgia O’Keeffe.

Tate Modern’s superb new retrospective, the largest ever devoted to O’Keeffe outside America, is a once-in-a-generation chance to explore a figure entirely absent from British collections. With outstanding loans from 23 US states — the monumental blow-up of a common plant “Jimson Weed/White Flower No 1”, the most expensive work sold at auction by a woman artist; a rare uniting of the “Black Place” quartet transforming Navajo County hills “like a mile of elephants” into brilliant-hued undulations and lightening zigzags — it presents O’Keeffe as a pioneer of American abstraction.

That is exactly what this tough, lofty, reclusive artist would have wished. But another story — private, erotic, fraught — keeps breaking through, and ultimately determines the experience of O’Keeffe’s work as an emotionally exhilarating more than a formally revealing one.

In the earliest paintings, from 1918-19, swirling rose arcs enclose a womblike azure void, and emerald ripples pulsate in rhythm to flames soaring in a black-rimmed cone. O’Keeffe explained these synaesthetically, as representing musical chords, and titled them “Music — Pink and Blue No 1” and “Blue and Green Music”. Yet to deny their sexual associations, and that of the iconic forms abstracted from nature here — deep cavities encased by purple folds in “Dark Iris”, thrusting stalks and softly opening petals in “Calla Lilies on Red”, the inward-moving eddies of “Pool in the Woods, Lake George” — is really not to see them at all.

O’Keeffe was a 29-year-old art school teacher in South Carolina when a friend sent some of her charcoal abstractions — dizzying compositions evoking vortexes, waterfalls, slow-moving clouds — to photographer and modernist impresario Alfred Stieglitz. Tate has borrowed these delicate, vibrant pieces from MoMA, Philadelphia and Houston, and you can see why, on receiving them, Stieglitz exclaimed “at last, a woman on paper!”

He immediately put them on the walls of his New York gallery, and gave O’Keeffe a solo show the following year. In 1918 the couple moved in together and Stieglitz began the series of more than 100 photographs in which O’Keeffe evolves from protégée to model to muse, from collaborator to combatant to free spirit. They are a highlight here, and dictate a compelling biographical slant.

Stieglitz grouped them together as “A Woman [One Portrait]”: the camera’s bid to rival painting in fixing an image of the archetypal woman. Stieglitz’s prototypes included Rubens’ “Helene Fourment” when he posed O’Keeffe in a kimono by a window, and Matisse’s languid figures for the full-frontal nudes with pronounced breasts and pubic hair such as “Georgia O’Keeffe — Torso”.

CWAG6J Alfred Stieglitz, and his wife, Georgia O'Keeffe, 1936. Courtesy: CSU Archives/Everett Collection
Georgia O’Keeffe with Alfred Stieglitz, in 1936 © CSU Archives/Everett Collection

But Stieglitz was also after a portrait of the instinctual all-American artist: framing O’Keeffe’s strong profile, long neck, tapering flexible hands in front of her paintings, he implied that her art sprang directly from her body.

“I love myself!” was O’Keeffe’s initial response. “It makes me laugh that I like myself so much — like myself as you make me.”

Stieglitz’s portraits remain the greatest love letter of one artist to another in photographic history, and a wonderfully optimistic record of a young woman discovering and delighting in her own sexuality. They also shaped O’Keeffe’s painting: the cropping, foreshortening, close-up formats of her images of flowers, leaves, shells, the way light moulds the fruit in “Apple Family” and “Alligator Pear”.

Georgia O'Keeffe: A Portrait; Alfred Stieglitz (American, 1864 - 1946); United States; 1918; Palladium print; 24.8 x 20.3 cm (9 3/4 x 8 in.); 91.XM.63.13
‘Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait’ (1918) by Alfred Stieglitz © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

A language of American modernism was forged in the push-pull between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz in the 1920s. Often they took the same subjects: his “Equivalent” cloud series and her bulbous cloud shapes in “A Celebration”, painted at their marriage in 1924; her visions of New York’s buildings against gleaming patches of sky — “New York Street with Moon”, “Ritz Tower, Night” — versus his austere geometric cityscapes such as “New York from An American Place”.

Defining an American place — what O’Keeffe called “that great American thing” — was the heart of the project. Stieglitz, a cosmopolitan intellectual educated in Germany, was entranced by the freedom, sparseness and luminosity with which O’Keeffe characterised nature around his country home in upstate New York. “Lake George” and “From the Lake” are near-abstractions of flattened bands or darting shafts of blue and turquoise. Detail in “Oak Leaves” is so focused that the imagery almost dissolves into pools of autumn pinks and greys.

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986 New York Street with Moon 1925
Georgia O’Keeffe’s ‘New York Street with Moon’ (1925) © Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection

“Each colour regains the fun it must have felt on forming the first rainbow,” wrote O’Keeffe’s contemporary Charles Demuth. That was the note of purity and freshness that O’Keeffe struck for so many East Coast modernists chasing American cultural identity. Here was a woman who had never been to Europe and had no interest in going. Instead, O’Keeffe looked south-west, and in 1929 arrived in New Mexico.

There she felt, she told Stieglitz, “like flying — like turning the world over again — like I used to feel”. She had fallen “into something from which there is no return”. Stieglitz who howled that for years he had been “canonising” her “day and night as no woman living or in the past was ever canonised”, was redundant. O’Keeffe now complained that when depicting her Stieglitz, essentially, “was always photographing himself. You had to sit there and do what you were told”. They proceeded to live apart for much of each year.

Georgia O’Keeffe 1887-1986 Oak Leaves, Pink and Grey 1927
© Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum

New Mexico liberated O’Keeffe: “As soon as I saw it, that was my country . . . It fitted me exactly.” Here was “the feeling of much space” that could not be tamed into European landscape mode, but lay open to the self-expression O’Keeffe sought: “I seem to be hunting for something of myself out there, something in myself that will give me a symbol for all this.” More than ever, the rounded summits, hidden recesses, fleshy surfaces in “Purple Hills”, “Black Hills with Cedar” and “The Mountain, New Mexico” read like externalisations of the body.

Tate is right, too, that the bleached animal skulls that O’Keeffe collected there are allegories of nationhood and identity. To O’Keeffe the bones were “shapes I enjoy, as beautiful as anything I know and strangely more living than the animals walking around . . . I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and the wonder of the world.”

The elongated “Horse’s Skull on Blue”, the idiosyncratic “Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettia”, the giant antlers brooding over tiny mountain peaks in “From the Faraway, Nearby”, painted in the 1930s, share surrealism’s incongruities and games of scale, but have no anxiety: they are, like everything in this upbeat show, songs of America.

O'Keeffe, Georgia (1887-1986): From the Faraway, Nearby, 1937. New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art*** Permission for usage must be provided in writing from Scala.
‘From the Faraway, Nearby’ (1937) by Georgia O’Keeffe © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Tate Modern, to October 30, tate.org.uk. Then Bank Austria Kunstforum Vienna, December 7-March 26; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, April 22-July 30

Photographs: Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum; CSU Archives/Everett Collection; Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/DACS, London

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