That painting is of a flower, we swear to you...

Flowers, skulls and desert skies

The Tate Modern’s new Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective features over 100 major works. We spoke to the curators to get the inside track on eight of them.

Georgia O’Keefe was fiercely unconventional and hugely prolific. The American modernist artist’s career spanned seven decades and transformed the way we look at the world. Best known for her oversized depictions of flowers, vivid desert landscapes and abstract arrangements, O’Keeffe constantly resisted being branded a ‘woman artist’. This summer the Tate Modern opens the first major exhibition of O’Keeffe’s work in Britain in over 20 years. Curator Tanya Barson and assistant curator Hannah Johnston talk us through the pivotal pieces by this hugely influential artist and Feminist icon…

Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow, c. 1923
The daughter of Wisconsin dairy farmers, O’Keeffe first rose to prominence through her watercolours and flower abstractions. However, she soon became frustrated by the interpretations of male art critics, who universally read her work as feminine and sexual in nature. “This ultimately shaped her career, because it prompted her to seek out less gendered material,” says curator Tanya Barson.

New York Street with Moon, 1925
By now O’Keeffe was living with the artist and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz on the 30th floor of the Shelton Hotel in Manhattan, where she was inspired by the energy and changing topography of the city. “The subject matter of the city was gendered as male, and when O’Keeffe expressed a desire to paint it, she was told she was crazy and warned that even male artists hadn’t done very well at this,” says Barson. “But she did it anyway, proving that she could claim any subject as her own.”

From the Lake, 1925
During the 1920s, O’Keeffe spent many weekends at the Stieglitz’s family estate in upstate New York, at large family occasions that she occasionally found stifling. “O’Keeffe was a prolific hiker, and she would do what she called her ‘tramping’ through the landscape,” says assistant curator Hannah Johnston. “This is O’Keeffe taking Modernism out of the city, shifting the focus on the East Coast out into the natural world.”

Black Cross with Stars and Blue, 1929
“In 1929, O’Keeffe spent a summer working in New Mexico, and this was somewhere that she felt a sense of belonging as soon as she arrived,” says Barson. “In this painting she’s exploring the idea of layers of culture on the landscape, considering an American identity, thinking about a distinctly American form of modernism.”

Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1, 1932
“Nobody sees a flower really; it is so small. We haven’t time, and to see takes time – like to have a friend takes time,” said O’Keeffe at the time. “I decided that if I could paint that flower in a huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty.” This painting of a humble garden weed is still the most expensive painting sold at auction by a female artist; the sale cemented O’Keeffe’s reputation as one of the most prominent American artists of her time.

From the Faraway, Nearby, 1937
O’Keeffe’s paintings of animal skulls found in the New Mexican desert initially perplexed her critics, who interpreted them as a rumination on death. Once again, O’Keeffe dismissed this deeper reading of her works. “To me they are as beautiful as anything I know,” Georgia O’Keeffe said, simply, of the sun-bleached bones.

My Front Yard, Summer 1941
From 1940 onwards, O’Keeffe entertained numerous artists and friends at her beloved Ghost Ranch in the village of Abiquiu, such as Ansel Adams, David McAlpin, and Margaret Adams Bok. “This painting was made against the background of burgeoning schools of abstraction back East in New York,” observes Barson. “So yes, O’Keeffe is out in New Mexico, but she is absolutely aware of, and engaged with, developments in the artistic schools back East.”

Sky with Flat White Cloud, 1962
Even in her later years, Georgia O’Keeffe was never not evolving, responding to other artistic schools and new techniques, scientific innovations and world affairs; and in the final decades of her life, she became fascinated with air travel. “She had a curiosity about different locations and travelled extensively throughout this late period,” says Barson. “Here we get a sense of the importance of travel to her, and a sense of infinity in this abstracted, meditative depiction of a blue pink sky.”