Why the legend of Georgia O’Keeffe – fierce, feminist and modernist – has overshadowed her paintings

A new exhibition at Tate Modern reveals how O'Keeffe's personality came to inform her art – and why it's time to consider them together.

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Georgia O’Keeffe was never merely a painter. In later life, when she was living at her adobe house in Abiquiú – one of two properties she owned about fifty miles north of Santa Fe, deep into barren New Mexico – an artistic pilgrim arrived at her gate and yelled that he wanted to see her. Miss O’Keeffe, as she was always known in the village, emerged from the garden, dressed as ever in black clothes of her own design that gave her a crisp, sculptural outline, hair pulled back to highlight her strong if severe face. She didn’t open the gate to the stranger but stood in front of him before giving him a twirl. “There,” she said, “now you’ve seen me,” and shooed him away. Here, in one incident, is O’Keeffe: self-confident, self-contained, haughty and fully aware of the value of an anecdote.

O’Keeffe (1887-1986) had had a long time to perfect her persona. She had been famous since the early 1920s and knew just how potent her image was. She remains best known for her paintings of flowers, which have always been held to resemble female genitalia. The link was first made in 1924, at the very outset of her career, when some of her flower pictures were exhibited in New York alongside a selection of photographs of nudes (many of her) by Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer, dealer and mentor whom she married that same year. Although O’Keeffe denied this sexualised reading of her work – “. . . 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” – she recognised that the frisson was good for sales and she both carried on painting flowers and posing naked for Stieglitz.

Throughout her life O’Keeffe kept her public image in a good state of repair. She was very conscious of her status as a feminist heroine, a pioneer modernist who turned her back on the east coast arts scene, an indomitable figure who made her home in the unknown and barely accessible regions of the far south-west and produced there a distinctive and wholly American art. All this was true and she buffed it up. As she was also well aware from her husband and from her close friendships with the photographers Paul Strand and Ansel Adams, her striking looks and clothes were extremely camera-friendly. Although she was almost always in company (friends, staff, assistants) photographs of her – and she was one of the most photographed women of the American 20th century – invariably show her on her own, a solitary figure facing the world, her companions carefully cropped from the scene. She believed that Americans look like fools because they grin all the time, so she rarely smiled in photographs.

The legend of O’Keeffe is so monumental that her art sometimes seems secondary. With some artists – Picasso, for instance – the work lives up to the man; with others, such as Frida Kahlo (coincidentally a friend of O’Keeffe’s), not so much. There is, remarkably, not a single painting by O’Keeffe in a British public collection, which makes the retrospective of her work at Tate Modern, the largest ever held outside America, a unique opportunity to see just how much she deserves her hallowed reputation.

If O’Keeffe’s personality was all about control so, too, was her art. Born on a farm in Wisconsin, she was initially drawn to music but when she turned to painting she gave herself a thorough theoretical grounding before she ever touched a canvas. She studied in both Chicago and New York and learned about modernism from the painter and educator Arthur Wesley Dow. Believing she wouldn’t make it as an artist, she took a job as a commercial designer in Chicago. What changed things for her was when she sent some drawings to a friend who, without her knowledge, showed them to Stieglitz, who then, again without O’Keeffe’s knowledge, exhibited them at his 291 gallery in New York (where he had been the first person to show Cézanne’s work in America). “Finally,” he wrote, “a woman on paper.” A correspondence between the pair followed, then a meeting, then a solo show, and finally marriage.

For an eager modernist, New York was the place to be and even as she painted her first flower pictures, she also produced pared-down images of the city’s skyscrapers as well as abstract works full of wavy lines and pastel colours that are her visual response to music, and show how influenced she was by Kandinsky’s teachings on synaesthesia (the correlation of the senses). Although they were painted partly to quieten the gendered reading of her work, which Stieglitz continued to encourage, her vertiginous views showing New York as a moonlit urban canyon are strangely prescient, pre-dating the bluffs and rock formations she later painted in New Mexico.

“I have been much photographed,” she said: “I am at present prejudiced in favour of photography.” And so her paintings mirrored the cropping and close focus of her husband’s work, zooming in on flowers or buildings and presenting them oversized and tight to the picture frame. It was both a means to simplify her subjects and a way of turning the real into the abstract.

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It was also in New York that O’Keeffe met Mabel Dodge Luhan, an artistic socialite who, had she been British, would have been a member of the Bloomsbury set. Her Charleston was a house in Taos, New Mexico, which she turned into an extraordinary cultural hub. Carl Jung, Willa ­Cather, Martha Graham, Leopold Stokowski, D H and Frieda Lawrence were all visitors, as was, in 1929, O’Keeffe. She made the long journey west not just to sample this unfamiliar world but also to escape Stieglitz’s relentless philandering, travelling with Rebecca Strand, wife of the photographer Paul. O’Keeffe was no innocent, either, writing to Strand that she wanted to kiss him and going even further with Rebecca, starting an affair with her.

Luhan told her shrink: “O’Keeffe is coming out in May. Finally, someone will paint the country.” One of the places she painted was the pueblo settlement near Taos that was home to Mabel’s fourth husband, Tony Luhan, a Native American whose name she took. Mabel hoped that her house would be a centre for facilitating the interplay between Western artists and Native American culture; with O’Keeffe, she succeeded to a degree, and with D H Lawrence, too. It was Mabel who gave Lawrence a 160-acre ranch in the hills in exchange for the manuscript of Sons and Lovers (which she later gave to a friend to pay off his psychiatrist’s bill). Her own love life was far from straightforward: she married four times and three of her husbands had syphilis. Many years later Mabel’s house was bought by Dennis Hopper, who had stayed there while filming Easy Rider.

Even though O’Keeffe’s relations with Mabel were strained, New Mexico had an immediate effect: “As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly.” In the harsh landscape she found the perfect subject for what she called “the Great American Thing” – art of authentic, deep America – and she visited every subsequent year, buying a house there in 1940. What she found around her homes at Ghost Ranch and later Abiquiú was something both tangible and intangible: motifs of rocks, cliffs and animal skulls that matched perfectly with her own, innate sense of design, her sense of geological place, and also a version of the old cliché about painterly light – the dry air giving bluer skies, crisper shadows and unmodulated light.

The south-west was perfect for her photographic sensibility and it also suited other aspects of her modernist technique, such as her lack of interest in perspectival recession and her flat, graphic, often bland application of paint. Even when showing vast landscapes and ranges of hills, hers are pictures that insist on their two-dimensionality. Unlike with conventional landscapes, there is no stepping into them. If this would seem to put her at one remove from her surroundings, the opposite was in fact the case. Hers was an analytical, research-based art: she made “colour chips”, painted canvas swatches, to see how different colours worked next to one another and even trimmed her brushes into specific shapes. She would also line up samples of soil on her palette to ensure the fidelity of her tones and although she frequently drew outside she rarely painted en plein air: the act of laying on colours was her way of expressing her feelings in front of the landscape.

Although O’Keeffe was wealthy and had staff to assist her, she nevertheless led a monastically disciplined life. She would get up early to catch the right light on rock formations, turned her Model A Ford into a movable studio and thought nothing of driving 150 miles to paint a striking mountain range she called “the Black Place” – retreating beneath her car for shelter when the sun became too fierce. During the construction of her house and studio at Ghost Ranch, 19 rattlesnakes were killed as workers cleared the site and fear of snakes was part of the reason she slept on the adobe building’s flat roof, rather than simply for the cool and a view of the night sky.

From the roof she could also see the Cerro Pedernal mountain. Just as Cézanne was obsessed with the Mont Sainte-Victoire, so Cerro Pedernal held a fascination for her: “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it,” she claimed, and so she painted it over and over again.

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Because O’Keeffe’s work is so stylised it is easy to assume that her landscapes are somehow distillations of what she saw before her. In fact, they are literal transcriptions. She may distort the scale but the colours and forms are accurate. “What I see out the windows,” she wrote, was “the pink earth and yellow cliffs to the north – the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky . . . pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull green cedars . . . . It is a very beautiful world.” Surrounded by natural structures bizarrely shaped by wind and water, she had no need to invent: she likened the Black Place to “a mile of elephants – grey hills all about the same size”, while her paintings of the White Place, a wall of weathered limestone cliffs not far from the Abiquiú house, look like a set of badly decaying teeth. She was drawn to the atypical but she nevertheless painted what she saw.

Yet not everything in New Mexico was beautiful. Abiquiú is not far from Los Alamos, the home of the Manhattan Project, and in the heat of the Cold War O’Keeffe felt a sort of fatalistic thrill in living so close to such an obvious target. It lies behind her paintings, in which the sky can be seen through holes in animal bones: “. . . that Blue”, she said, “will always be there as it is now after all man’s destruction is finished”. Even as she tended her garden, she built her own nuclear shelter in it, largely because she was curious to see what the world would look like after a nuclear apocalypse.

The first intimations of mortality came not with a mushroom cloud, but with the onset of macular degeneration, which began to afflict her in 1972. This led to an increasing reliance on helpers, one of whom was a young potter called Juan Hamilton. They developed a close friendship that O’Keeffe believed was romantic and that led to some deeply unsavoury wrangling over the extremely generous provision she made for him in her will.

As her output slowed, her control over her image nevertheless remained tight: she once burned 40 paintings in a day and later slashed others; she bought back pieces to give to galleries; she refused permission for her work to be reproduced on fabrics, ceramics and other commercial gewgaws. While she was determined that the “Great American Thing” should be her pictures, her single-mindedness ensured that it was every bit as much her, too.

“Georgia O’Keeffe” runs until 30 October. Details: tate.org.uk

Michael Prodger is associate editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article appears in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM