I’m one of many thousands who’ve visited the Tate Modern to see things through Georgia O’Keefe’s eyes.
Although many of her pictures are about minute objects like flowers, there is always something of the far away about them. O’Keefe talks about the far away and what she says in included in the exhibition.
Sometimes she paints the pelvic bone of a wild animal – bleached white by the New Mexico sun. But the eye is drawn through the socket of the bone to the welkin beyond, a bright blue limitless space that talks with the dead bone.
Other times the landscape itself provides the far away, our eyes are drawn to distant vistas that cram the sky against the frame of the painting. The land always seems to demand her eye’s attention.
But the land is not so abstract, real things happen around the Ghost ranch and the paintings of New York in the early years of her career are driven by dynamic action. Some remind you of Lowry in composition, but with O’Keefe, the cityscapes of New York are more optamistic, the paintings more extovert, less meditative.
Everyone who knew O’Keefe seems to have recognised that she was painting as an American her sense of what America was. She died 20 years ago but the exhibition seems pretty up to date in its presentation of America. Maybe that is because she has defined how we see the land and the Indian masks and the bones and the cities and the flowers that define her painting.
When Razorlight sang their anthem to America, they sang it as Brits- it was an anthem from visitors that saw America in musical terms.
When Sprinsteen sings of America, it is with pride and with pathos, even when he sings of 9/11 or Vietnam, he sings of the vital dynamism of the place.
These were my best routes to America through rock music.
But When I want to really get to America, it is to Copeland and his Appalachian Spring. America defines itself through music (something that O’Keefe set out to change.
O’Keefe, who could have been a violinist, painted what it was to be an American. She even tried to paint the sound of cattle on the Texas plains. Her interest in synaesthesia came out of academic study of Kandinsky but its expression, throughout here long career, seems as natural as everything else she does.
O my America , my Newfoundland
My kingdom safeliest when with one man manned
My mine of precious stones, my empery
How blest am I in thus discovering thee
The words are John Donne’s (Come Madam Come) and – by coincidence are sung by Oberon to Hippolyta in the Globe’s production of Midsummer Night’s dream).
They stand for my very personal relationship to the Georgia O’Keefe exhibition, which I have now visited 8 times.
If you are lucky enough to live nearby, grab a Tate membership and go as often as me. If not, plan your trip around this great exhibition