Tate Modern honours the genius of Georgia O'Keeffe

As the much-anticipated exhibition opens in London, assistant curator Hannah Johnston celebrates the breadth of the artist's work

This year marks a century since Georgia O'Keeffe's first exhibition and we want people to discover the diversity of her oeuvre. She had an incredibly long and illustrious career from the 1910s through to the 1980s, but we've focused on her six most productive decades, from the 1910s to the 1960s.

Her professional debut was in 1916, when she exhibited at 291 on Fifth Avenue in New York, a gallery owned by photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whom she later married. Her early works in charcoal, watercolour and oil explore her fascination with synaesthesia and translate musical compositions into abstract, visual forms.

Oil paint on canvas 762 x 1016 mm

She first began painting her iconic flowers in the early 1920s, when Stieglitz and others in his circle used Freudian readings to interpret her early abstractions in very gendered terms. They saw her work as an expression of her sexuality, even though she strongly refuted this throughout her life. I think O'Keeffe took issue with the view that, in the eye of the male critic, her work was that of a woman artist. She fundamentally disagreed with this as she wanted to be regarded as a painter, not a woman painter.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

Dismissing the erotic interpretations others read into her work, she turned to recognisable subject matter, painting flowers in such detail and large enough so even busy New Yorkers would stop and take notice of them.

While she's most renowned for her flower paintings, she's also a landscape painter and we see how her work took a new direction when she accepted an invitation in 1929 from art patron and socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan to visit Taos in New Mexico.

Pastel on paper 546 x 1099 mm

O'Keeffe wanted a change of scenery from Lake George in New York, where she and Stieglitz usually spent their summers. She'd first seen New Mexico on holiday with her sister Claudia in 1917, when their train had been rerouted, and she was captivated by the intensity of the stark surrounds.

Her first home in New Mexico was at Ghost Ranch – a dude ranch where wealthy tourists could experience the Wild West. She had no interest in the ranch, but she bought a mud-brick-built adobe house on the site and painted the views from her windows.

Oil paint on canvas 538x814mm

O'Keeffe used everything that was available to her in her environment in New Mexico. When the state suffered a particularly bad drought in 1930, which caused the starvation of many animals, she collected skeletons and painted bones instead of flowers. She didn't associate the bones with death, but saw them as beautiful objects in their own right.

She also painted Kachina dolls - decorated figures carved from wood and moulded in clay. These votive objects play an important role in the ceremonies and rituals of Native American communities and were a way for the artist to capture the spirit of the country around her.

We're very excited to be displaying a broad range of O'Keeffe's lesser-known works at Tate Modern, thus dispelling cliches and showing that her work is much more than the flowers for which she is best known.

HANNAH JOHNSTON is the assistant curator of international art at Tate Modern. Although her focus is North American acquisitions, she also works on major exhibitions and displays staged from Tate's permanent collection.

The Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition is on at Tate Modern until 30 October; tate.org.uk

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.