Interview with Tanya Barson, Curator, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tate Modern, London

Interview with Tanya Barson, Curator, Georgia O’Keeffe, Tate Modern, London

Tate Modern continues its dedication to the work of major women artists since its opening in 2000 with its upcoming summer exhibition. Opening on 6 July, Georgia O’Keeffe brings together over 100 of the artist’s most important works from six decades of her career, including Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 1932, the most expensive painting by a female artist ever sold at auction. With no works by O’Keeffe in UK public collections, this is a rare opportunity for audiences outside the U.S. to view the exceptional skill of her remarkable paintings. Making her debut exactly a century ago, in 1916, she was immediately recognised as a trailblazing artist. We speak to  Tanya Barson, Curator, Tate Modern, about the highly successful and influential practitioner.

A: In your opinion, how relevant are O’Keeffe’s paintings today?
TB: I think that O’Keeffe’s work remains incredibly relevant and in fact, I think it is time for us to review her work and contribution and see it anew. O’Keeffe influenced successive generations of artists, from contemporaries such as the Canadian Emily Carr to abstract artists such as the Cuban-American Carmen Herrera and Agnes Martin, land artist James Turrell, and of course a number of feminist artists such as Judy Chicago and Mary Beth Edelson. Today artists such as Elizabeth Peyton have also looked to her work and her status as an icon as a source for inspiration. Its now 100 years since her debut and it is both timely to think of her life achievements but also to see how contemporary her work feels, in particular her abstractions. In the 1950s and again in the 1970s when people saw her work they thought it looked recent and yet they were looking at paintings done decades before. I think that it will seem so again today, thus her work has an enduring appeal and contemporaneity.

A: The artist has been recognised for her iconic and original contributions to American Modernism. Which of her works do you believe have been most influential?
TB: O’Keeffe’s work is in great part a negotiation between landscape and abstraction, pursued through a profound immersion in her context and environment. Thus her work as both an abstract artist – her Patio series for instance – as well as a painter of landscape – her works in the Southwest – have both been very influential. When her early watercolours from the 1910s were shown in New York in 1958 they were seen as completely in tune with current abstract art and I think we might see their influence in the work of colour field artists of that time. Her paintings of the desert such as From the Faraway, Nearby, 1937, and later paintings of sky horizons such as Sky with Flat White Cloud, 1962, might be seen as influential on artists such as Agnes Martin. Thus it is not one body of work but many that have been influential. Of course, her status as a cultural icon has also been influential and a source of works by other artists.

A: O’Keeffe’s practice encompassed many diverse themes. What can audiences expect to see throughout the exhibition?
TB: We aimed to present the incredible diversity of her work, showing that while she was a very focused artist and had a clear understanding of her aesthetic priorities, she nevertheless produced a great range of work. I would like people to see her as a much more complex and multifaceted artist than perhaps is commonly portrayed. Thus we will arrange the exhibition along roughly chronological lines, but will also have different thematic focuses in the different rooms, showing her development and her diverse concerns. Hers was a long career and so we are covering a number of shifts in her work, and showing some works in the UK for the first time.

A: The retrospective will explore the struggle of being a female artist in the early to mid-20th century. How did O’Keeffe triumph over particular conventions, and how important was her relationship with Alfred Stieglitz?
TB: O’Keeffe was very clear that she needed to be dedicated to her art to succeed and thus her own character and determination played a huge part in her success. She sought out skilful teachers and studied intensely, but she also sought out Alfred Stieglitz as one of the leading figures avant-garde circles of her day. Their relationship is complex. There is no doubt that his knowledge and support helped her to gain visibility and a place in the heart of the modernist art world of the time. His interpretations of her work however are very particular and she did not necessarily agree with them, but they stuck and have inflected readings of her work ever since. So close association with Stieglitz had both positive and negative effects – but their personal commitment and mutual influence was important and profound.

Georgia O’Keeffe is curated by Tanya Barson, Curator, Tate Modern with Hannah Johnston, Assistant Curator, Tate Modern. The exhibition is accompanied by a catalogue from Tate Publishing and will tour throughout 2017.

Georgia O’Keeffe, 6 July 30 October, Tate Modern, Bankside, London, SE1 9TG.

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1. Georgia O’Keeffe by Alfred Stieglitz 1918.