Study trip – Georgia Okeeffe at the Tate modern

on Saturday 10th September I attended a study visit to the Tate modern to see the Georgia Okeeffe show. Armed with a note book these are my personal notes and comments.

Bryan Eccleshall was the tutor assigned to the trip. Before going into the show we met outside the entrance and Bryan gave a brief induction to what to expect, think about and look at. There was also an opportunity to ask questions.

we entered the show looking out for a variety of things – these could be

– composition

– colours

– look out for how Okeeffe returned to shapes, arrangements in landscape, motifs that she keeps coming back to

– note how Okeeffe’s work appears to inhabit a fine line between  abstraction and representation

– Okeeffe dicision making for example she often removes the trees from the landscape

– we may want to think about the relationship with photography

– and what does it mean or feel like to see an original painting in the flesh

 

Previous to this show I had only ever seen one Georgia Okeeffe painting in the flesh – in 1988 at the Hayward gallery in an exhibition called “master paintings from the Philips collection , Washington” the painting was ” from the white place ” a large oil from 1940 – at the time I was totally in awe of her use of perspective to suggest the vastness of the pale ravine and how it seemed to almost pull me into the scene. I was so impressed that I brought a reproduction of the painting and the exhibition catalogue!

ROOM 1 – the early years

Georgia Okeeffe was born in Wisconsin in 1887 and died aged 98 in New Mexico

In this room were some interesting gelatine silver point photographs by Alfred Stieglitz 1864-1946. Okeeffe belonged to Stieglitz’s avant garde circle and would later marry him. Okeeffe’s first show was in Stieglitz’s New York gallery in 1916.

i was interested in two small untitled graphite drawings c.1916/17 the first one is an abstraction of what loosely looks like a head with a faint mark suggesting an eye? In the other drawing she is exploring angular vertical and triangular shapes. Next to these drawings is another monochromatic drawing using ink on paper c.1916/1917. The drawing is a still life that seems reminscent of a Georges Braque cubist inspired composition . Then next to these works we see some early  Okeeffe works in colour.  “Blue hill no.11 ” 1916 is a small scale watercolour she carefully washes onto the paper  a vivid blue hue – the composition is concerned with exploring  rounded arch shapes .

“Pink and blue mountain ” 1916 is also a powerful watercolour – I liked the way Okeeffe uses colour in this work with her use of vibrant blues of various hues from across the spectrum and a sweeping wash of pink – then in the background there is a blue wash of “watery ” blue.

“No.17 special ” 1916-1917 is a charcoal drawing – the drawing has an almost organic feel with again circular arched shapes in the darkest hue with a series of mysterious circle round forms  that reminded me of children’s bubbles! The curators of the show include this quote from Okeeffe ” Saturday right after breakfast we would drive the twenty miles to the pale canyon……. It was colourful like a small Grand Canyon, but most of it only a mile wide, the only paths were narrow cow paths …….. It was usually very dry , and it was a lonely place, often as we were leaving we would see a long line of cattle like black lace against the sunset sky” – very powerful imagery. I thought this drawing had an almost luminous quality with the dark sweeping curve of the shapes with the lighter applied circles that almost appear transparent – I felt the drawing represented a sense of the Unknown mystery of the natural form  of the canyon.

“Sunrise ” a watercolour on paper.  1916 demonstrates how skilful Okeeffe was in applying and the use of colour. The vibrant  reds bleed perfectly into the curve of the composition, I am beginning to sense how Okeeffe seems to be interested in shapes In another charcoal drawing from 1919 Okeeffe is experimenting with lines and shapes – this time using abstraction in a style similar to the de Stijl art movement. I was also stuck by the way  Okeeffe has handled the  charcoal she uses the medium is a very smooth manner.

“Red and orange streak” 1919 is a very colourful oil painting

” painted from memory…….demonstrates the lingering effect of the Texan plain” which Okeeffe described as ” land like the ocean. …….furthering her interest in synaesthesia ( source Tate gallery )  The colours are rich the deep red and purple hues are so intense they almost appear black. Okeeffe also uses a wide range of orange and yellow hues. The  use of curved shapes in the composition again appear to be dominant theme.

ROOM 2 – Abstraction and the senses

“I paint because colour is a significant language to me” after leaving Texas and settling in New York in 1918 Okeeffe produced work that explores  the relationship of form to music, colour and composition……..”the idea that music could be translated into something for the eye” ( source Tate gallery)

in this room there were some examples of Okeeffe’s early flower abstractions of these there were 2  in monochrome using a palette consisting of  whites, grey and black – there was one painting with a subtle touch of blue applied and contrasting with the cool black and white hues.  She seems to be exploring colour harmony and the visual senses? Other works in this room demonstrate her exploration of colour  as she begins to add small amounts of pale colour against the cool white and grey   an example of her colour mixing skills can be seen in  ” grey lines with black, blue and yellow” 1923 – this oil painting seems to represent many themes – is it about feminism ‘ ?  A representation of female gentiltalia ? Nature? Senses ? I really am unsure  what this painting is saying? although it does have an element of sensuality with the use of the colour drawing the viewer into the centre of the work? I wondered  if maybe Okeeffe is being diliberately ambiguous? Looking at these works I found myself filled with several unanswered questions.

“abstraction white Rose ” 1927 I feel is a more representative form of abstraction as it looks to me more like the blown up detail of the swirling circular form of a rose. I particularly like the soft colours and the way  it appears to suggest the soft texture of a fragile bloom. But it also looks very much like a misty cloud formation ?

“abstraction- Alexius ” 1928 oil on canvas  is another work that I found was interesting , the composition seems very balanced the paint techniques very precise building up the colour then it looks like she has added white paint in a stumbling manner blending the colours. I felt this could also be a landscape with billowing clouds and rippling ocean waves? I liked the way the paintings drew me in.

ROOM 3 – Okeeffe , Stieglitz and their circle

In this room we are given an insight to Okeeffe’s creative and personal relationship with Alfred Stieglitz and his inner circle.  I was struck with the power of Stieglitz’s photography- they are  fueled with an intensity and the imagery I felt was very expressive. I know very little about photography but it was clear that his style was definitely fine art photography. “Portrait of Georgia ” 1923 gelatine silver print on paper , I really liked the composition the way he has posed Okeeffe with her head angled to hi-light her strong facial bone structure. The dark intense background is broken up by a graduated shadowed light effect  in the foreground. ” portrait of Georgia number  2 and number 3 songs of the sky ” 1923 both photographs are Gelatin silver prints. haunting and atmospheric  shots of the darkened sky with shadowery clouds – I thought they had a very cinematic quality and reminded me of  Jean Cocteau’s cloud in his 1946 film ” la belle et la bete”. There were ten other cloud photographs by Stieglitz on display.

” a celebration ” 1924 is a large oil – it shows swirly , billowing clouds filling the picture plane. The cloud formation at the bottom left in the foreground almost looks like two  mysterious cloud figures?

there were other examples of Stieglitz’s photography from 1922 including some striking portraits of Okeeffe  from 1919 where she is naked  but  the photos show just her torso and breasts – the intense black of her pubic hair sharply contrasts with the pale white of her torso. They reminded me of Man Ray’s photography.

ROOM 4 New York cityscapes

This room focuses on a series of cityscapes made of New York – including views made from the 30th floor of a skyscraper. I really liked this exciting  group of paintings  “New York street with moon “1925 a large oil on canvas. The painting is a scene of 47th street and had a surrealist  utopian feel to the composition. I particularly liked the way Okeeffe has captured the glowing effect of the electric lights against the starkness of the angular building. ” New York night 1928-30  is another large oil on canvas that again explores the busy night-time city , I like the way she has captured the light source and mood of the not sleeping city! She skilfully uses perspective to suggest the lights of the vehicles as they recede off the picture pane. ” Ritz tower night” oil on canvas 1928 again a very atmospheric work with the tall building raising up in the sky and off the picture pane. What I found interesting was the slanting swirling clouds that appear very cinematic. Again Okeeffe manages to capture the mysterious hazy effect of the street lighting. ” East river from the 30th story of the Shelton hotel ” 1928 oil on canvas. The composition explores aerial perspective- looking out onto the hazy city across   The River. The foreground is composed of various roof tops that appear almost like a pile of assembled boxes. ” East River number 3″ 1926 oil again explores the shapes of the industrial buildings and the roof tops. Unlike Okeeffe’s usual round circular shapes in the East River views she is exploring more angular cubes, box and square shapes.  On the opposite wall of Room 4 are several examples of Stieglitz’s photography this time of the New York skyline and city roofs parallels to Okeeffe’s paintings.

ROOM 5 – Lake George

grouped together in this room are a series of works inspired by a rural area of upstate New York and coastal landscapes of Maine and Canada. The Stieglitz family had a summer home in Lake George. Okeeffe and Stieglitz spend three summers and autumns    On Lake George. ” lake George ” 1922 oil is an abstraction that to me suggests rolling hills but what is striking about the painting is the circular space close to the centre of the composition that almost suggests a giant eye?

” pool in the woods” 1922 pastel on paper – is very interesting as Okeeffe’ s pastel technique is unlike anything I have seen before. She has applied the pastel in smooth layers so that the finished drawing looks like an oil painting!

” Front of the lake 3 ” 1924 oil on canvas – in this Okeeffe is definitely blurring the line between abstraction and representation. The shapes here are more random in nature and she is introducing more earthy hues to her palette.  ” farmhouse window and door” 1929 oil. I really liked this work – the composition is of the exterior of the family  home at Lake George – Okeeffe has captured the door straight on  the predominant shapes are rectangular and she uses block of colours in neutral cool tones.

“Autumn leaves ” 1924 oil and ” Apple family 2″ oil on canvas 1924 are both figurative works using a rich and vibrant palette. ” Apple family ” is a fairly traditional still life but she omits most of the background and the foreground instead focusing on the rounded forms of the apples. Both paintings demonstrate Okeeffe’s use of vibrant colour and it is becoming clear that she is very skilled in mixing colour.

” Lake George barns” 1926 oil on canvas has a simple but effective composition of three rural barns. I particularly liked the neutral grey and green colours with just a small area of red just glimpsed on the far left of the picture pane that helps to create a sense of tranquility and calmness.  What I liked about this room is that we are beginning to see the immergance of Okeeffe’s interest in the natural landscape and the development of her themes.

ROOM 6 – flowers and still lifes

Flowers feature as a major theme in Okeeffe’s work from the 1920’s until the 1950’s.

“Alligator pear ” 1923 pastel on paper again this demonstrates Okeeffe’s  painterly pastel style  the pear is depicted in a very photo realism style. ” Oriental poppies” a large oil on canvas 1927. In this work Okeeffe has blown up the poppies . The vibrant colours appear sensual and alluring. I like the way she has blended  the colours – she has used a bright orange hue to hi-light and contrast with the vivid velvety reds of the petals.  I have seen this work in numerous reproductions that do not capture in any way the hypnotic quality of this painting. Also in this room there were 4 oil paintings of Calla lilies dated from 1923-1930 and again we can see that she may be looking at ‘photo realism’ ? But on a large scale. “Jimson Weed/ white flower number 1 ” oil on canvas 1932 is the classic Iconic Okeeffe motif that I have seen in several reproductions – but it the flesh it really stands out – she has used her cool colours blending them in a Subtle manner that works well at  suggesting the delicate and fragile nature of the flower. My eye was particularly drawn to the star- life shapes of the anther within the flowers stamen , the composition is also balanced following the large circular form of the flower head. This is a real stand out work.

ROOM 7 – New Mexico : Taos and Alcalde

In 1929 Okeeffe made her first visit to New Mexico and prolonged visits to this area of South West America and the landscape become the focus of her work.

” black cross with stars and blue” 1929 oil on canvas ” it was late night the cross stood out dark against the evening sky” ( source Tate gallery) The cross is  from the penitentes  Catholic sect. I liked the way powerful visual imagery dominates the composition  , the sky is presented with a few stars -and  the cross recedes off the top of the picture, as though leading the viewer upwards to a gateway to the sky and stars?

“The mountain New Mexico” oil 1931 is a large landscape with vivid use of colour earthy , red tones are used to suggest the dry rugged formations of the mountain , with a strong vibrant blue still sky. I really liked the composition the way the colours are placed adding scale and depth.

“Ranchos church, New Mexico “1930-1 oil on canvas. In this work I can sense a feel of tranquility and harmony – the sky is stark and the formation of the ranch almost seems to overpower the composition.

” Another church, Hernandez New Mexico” 1931 oil on canvas is another interesting work  – the hills appear to shelter and enclose the geometric shapes of the  sandy gold and yellow  hued church – within the structure of the building there is  minute tableau scene offering a glimpse of an altar and a cross?

ROOM 8 – from the faraway nearby ; the skull paintings

Georgia Okeeffe began exploring the natural forms of animal bones from around 1931.

“Deer horns ” oil 1938  I really liked the enlongated composition that emphasises the sheer length of the skeleton horns. The shapes of the curving horns almost resemble  bare tree branches.

” Mule’s skull with poinsettia ” oil painting 1936 has an almost surrealist composition the skull is placed to the left and is set among the coppery coloured hills with areas of vivid green trees balancing on the mountains edges but  above the hills is a detailed figurative painting of two delicately coloured poinsettias.

” From the faraway , nearby ” 1937 oil on canvas . Okeeffe had this to say ”   The bones do not symbolise death to me ….. They are very lively .” ( source the Tate gallery) in this painting Okeeffe presents a realistic painting of a skull placed onto the vast New Mexico landscape – as though placing the organic bones back within the soil.?

” Ram horns 1 ” c.1949 charcoal on paper – here Okeeffe is exploring the basic structure and form of the horns the tonal quality of the intense black  nature of her drawing medium gives the horns a very organic natural feel.

“horse skull on blue” 1931 oil the form of the angular skull is presented enlongated on the picture pane as if coming towards the viewer.

 

ROOM 9 – Ghost Ranch

In 1934 Okeeffe discovered Ghost Ranch and she stayed in an Adobe building  on the property before buying a house in the area in 1940. During the 30’s and 40’s she explored the landscape- the intense reds and pinks as well as the Chama river and the Cerritos pedernal ( Flint hill) these works are interesting and expansive and again Okeeffe is  blurring the line between abstraction and representation.

“red hills and bones” oil 1941 . In this work she is looking at the earthy red colour – the hills raise up with what looks like a river bubbling though? In the foreground is the cool ghostly pale bones of an animal.

” Dead poison tree” 1943 oil . Another example of an interesting compostion as the tree appears as though it is growing up from the frame. There is good use of colour with the earthy tones broken up by a streak of vivid green then in the foreground a still blue sky.

” Purple hills ” 1935 oil on canvas. Again I like the way Okeeffe uses colour to suggest the structure of the distant hills and the way she adds the paler tones sweeping to the left of the picture pane that adds a sense of the large scale of the hills.

“Chama river ghost ranch, New Mexico ” 1937  Another example of an interesting compostion with the river twisting off into the landscape and the use of colour with the warm hues of the hills sweeping downwards towards the intense cool blue tones of the river.

ROOM 10 – The black place and the white place

The White place is a site of grey-White cliffs in the Chama River valley 150 miles west of Ghost Ranch. In this  series of paintings Okeeffe seems to be exploring a sense of the physical presence of the landscape , it’s light and its shapes. I really felt that she had captured the very essence of the landscape and I liked how Okeeffe has  managed to suggest a sense of drama and a feeling of mystery.

“Black place 11” oil 1945. I really liked the tonal hues of the dark paint and the way she explores the physical form of the hills sweeping back and forth I felt like I was glazing into an unknown uncharted crevice into the unknown depths of the landscape.

“Black place 111” oil on canvas 1945 Again a very dramatic work  of a gully though the hills that blends reality into abstraction, next to this was “Black place no. 1v ” 1944 which has almost the same composition but this time using vibrant earthy shades of orange as her palette. My favourite of the series was ” The black place 111″ pastel on paper – again Okeeffe uses the pastel in a painterly manner – with smooth careful blended marks I though that the rolling hills resembled a piece of carefully drawn fabric.

ROOM 11 – the series Abiquiu patios, pelvis bones and cottonwood trees

Okeeffe returns to an earlier motif of exploring bones but this time she is responding to pelvis bones holding them up against the sky or viewing a distant landscape though an aperture in the bone. Another theme is the patio of her house at Abiquiu.

” Untitled abstraction ” 1943 charcoal on brown toned paper. In this drawing she is looking at simple shapes and abstracting them. I liked the way Okeeffe uses the white chalk to hi light areas of the drawing.

there were two large oils ” pelvis 1 ” and ” pelvic 2″ in these she is placed the bone against the vivid blue sky the effect appears very calm and tranquil.

“Spring tree 1  ” 1945 oil a close up of a tree with areas of abstraction picking out some of the tree shapes. There were 3 other paintings of trees including “cottonwoods” c.1952 Okeeffe observed the cotton wood trees from her house , in this picture her brushstrokes seem fairly  looser as she explores the shapes of the tree using the paint in a scribble like manner to  emphasise  the circular shapes.

there were three paintings exploring Okeeffe’s patio / door. ” wall with green door ” 1953 oil on canvas. In this work she seems to be exploring the juxtaposition of the angular shapes with flat areas of colour. ” In the patio no. 1v “1948 is a smaller oil painting but this time Okeeffe includes a doorway on the far right of her composition that seems to add a sense of mystery in ” my last door” 1952-3 uses a economical composition in a that is then turned into an abstraction.

ROOM 12 – the south west

Spanning the 1930 and 40’s Okeeffe made a number of paintings of American karchinas ( figures of spirit beings carved in wood or modelled from clay)

” untitled ( ghost ranch cliff) ” and ” untitled dry waterfall , ghost ranch” are two drawings using charcoal and graphite on coloured paper c. 1943 exploring the landscape by  using line and some economical areas of tone. I thought both drawing had a real sense of drama .

” untitled ( skull) ” c.1934 is another interesting drawing on paper using charcoal but by  just using lines. ” Eagle craw and bean necklace ” 1934 another charcoal this time the drawing is very polished in nature with intense use of the darkest tonal values  that appears to convey a very sculptural 3D effect to the drawing. There were  also 7 paintings of “Kachina’s” some of them placed within the landscape. Although the subject manner is interesting  and symbolic I felt that  for me they lacked the excitement of Okeeffe’s landscapes. There were two  charcoal drawings from 1934 that were concerned with form and tonal values next to 4 photographs from the iconic American photographer Ansel Adams (1902-1984) of the Chama valley and moonrise Hernandez . There were also 2 portrait photographs of Okeeffe by Alfred Stieglitz. I liked the way again Stieglitz has posed Okeeffe depicting her as a reflective enigmatic figure?

ROOM 13 – late Abstractions and  skyscrapers, paintings of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

the final room of the exhibition focuses on two series inspired by Aeroplane journeys

“sky above the clouds 111″ 1963 oil on canvas. I was excited to view this in the flesh as I had looked at Okeeffe’s cloud paintings in unit 3 of drawing one. In the  large scale painting Okeeffe is investigating distant horizons. I felt the viewpoint was interesting  – round forms of the clouds stretch out receding in sizes demonstrating how to use aerial perspective. The mood of the painting is relaxed and calm. The use of colour is gain skilfully organised I particularly liked the way Okeeffe has introduced some orange on the horizon line adding atmosphere. ” Drawing 111″ is a 1959 charcoal on paper drawing of a close up area of a dark tree focusing on the twisted shapes of the branches. Again we can see Okeeffe’s smooth charcoal technique and what really interested me is there is a faint drawing possibly erased that can just been seen on the paper – that demonstrates some of her working processes.

“sky with flat colour” 1962 oil  Again this work is concerned with the sky and clouds , I really liked the effect of the cloud represented in a solid block meeting the graduated horizon.

” Blue 1″ oil 1958. In this painting can be seen a wispy cloud appearing to pass though blue strips of colour , the eye is drawn towards the vividness of the blue. ” Blue” an oil from 1958 looks very much like a landscape viewed from above.I feel that she is exploring  colour to suggest mood and scale? ” from the river , pale ” 1959 is an oil painting. The river is seen branching though cool tones of pink and green, almost I felt like the veins of a leave. ” It was blue and Green”1960 oil again is a landscape ecplored from above?

MY REPONSE TO GEORGIA OKEEFFE AT THE TATE GALLERY

i really liked the show and it has helped me understand Okeeffe better she certainly was not just a painter of “flowers”. She certainly is an American artist as she returned to the motif of the American landscape and appears to be interested in Native American culture and mysterism. Clearly she was influenced by photography as she mixed with a circle of influential photographers including her husband Alfred Stieglitz and it was interesting to see some of his work depicting the same scenes outside their New York home that Okeeffe has observed and painted. I was excited to see the “cloud” paintings in the flesh as I had looked at them earlier on in the course and they were even better that I could ever imagine. Definitely no reproductions of Okeeffe work comes close to seeing the real painting. I was also impressed by  her skills as a colourist and her interesting compositions. What did occur to me, was that there was not any figure drawings  or portraits  which is quite unusual particularly as Okeeffe had such a long career – there was one  abstract drawing that may have been a  head ? In room one. My maybe Okeeffe was interested more in the nature of the landscape – areas of ravines and mountains older than mankind and Not assessable – she often only encountered cattle? The natural form of animal bones did interest her and I felt that she was also interested in the bones relationship to the landscape.   I liked the way Okeeffe  symbolically returns the bones to the land in her work.

after going around the exhibition we regrouped in the cafe area and had a discussion on the show – I found it particularly interesting meeting the photography students and hearing their views . In all a really useful day thank you Open college of the arts and Bryan our tutor for the day. For me personally I felt that I had learnt a lot by looking at the paintings. In a sense I discovered that as an artist it is possible  and perfectly Acceptable to return  to motifs and themes in your work and still find fresh elements to explore artistically  – I also discovered that Okeeffe spend a lot of time on her work and definitely had an analytical approach. The show made me realise that I still have a long journey to go in terms of exploring art. I felt that I should aim to be more analytical in my approach to my work – to take more time and be more careful with my work. I also found myself noticing Okeeffe’s use of medium – I found her charcoal drawings particularly interesting  and inspiring as I am starting to use charcoal as a drawing medium . Also interesting is the precise way that  Okeeffe plans her composition ( composition is something I find challenging)  it made me realise that proper planning is essential before embarking on my final piece, that I need to think more about what I want to achieve .It also made me realise that it is important for art students take the opportunity to see exhibitions of this scale and magnitude as you lean so much from seeing art in the flesh!  I left the Tate with much to think about.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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