Georgia O’Keeffe at Tate Modern

John Westbrooke visits an exhibition of work from of an artist seldom seen in the UK

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Tate Modern’s Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective claims to be the biggest ever held outside the USA. This makes up, temporarily, for the unfortunate fact that not a single British gallery holds any of the works that this pioneer of American modernism created across seven decades.

Perhaps this isn’t surprising when you realise that one of the works on show – Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1 – recently sold for $44 million, a record for a female artist and a price few galleries could afford.

She’s most famous now for her big flower paintings, of which only a modest number are on display, but what we see here covers most of her long career and turns out to be surprisingly varied. Her first exhibition, just 100 years ago at a New York gallery owned by photographer Alfred Stieglitz, featured abstract work in charcoal, as she determined to avoid colour as long as she could.

But she soon married Stieglitz and from the windows of their 30th-floor apartment he produced sombre monochrome studies of architectural geometry while she painted dramatic portraits of a metropolis at night of soaring skyscrapers under deep blue skies and lit by garish street lamps.

They also spent time in a rural area outside New York where she painted barns and apples. By the time Stieglitz mounted an exhibition in 1923 called “Georgia O’Keeffe, American” she’d lived on the prairies of her native Wisconsin, in Virginia and on the empty plains of Texas as well as the great cities of Chicago and New York, and she was being seen as a pioneer of an American culture that had cut its ties to its European past.

From 1929 she began to visit the south-west as well, falling in love with the arid landscapes and harsh light, and eventually spending most of her life there. One painting, depicting a vast, scrubby, parched landscape backed by red and purple mountains, is appreciatively entitled My Front Yard, Summer.

She painted the white animal bones she found in the desert and the cubist adobe buildings of the towns. Sometimes she painted the natural and man-made worlds together: a cross is silhouetted against a mountain and starry sky in Black Cross with Stars and Blue.

It can be hard to pin down just what sort of painter she was. From the Faraway, Nearby depicts a skull with a full head of antlers, suspended in the sky over equally sun-bleached badlands; it could almost be by Dali. Her depiction of the patio of her home in Abuquiú village – just the wall, a window, a door – is minimalist; she did it over and over again (one version was called My Last Door, but it wasn’t). The bright sun sometimes drains out the colours and shadows, so the paintings can look unexpectedly two-dimensional, as the land itself can do at midday.

But alongside the rectangular austerity of her walls and doors you can put the soft, lush folds of her flower paintings, many of them large-scale portraits of small blossoms. These have always been controversial. Freudians saw genitalia in them from the start; and feminist critics in the 60s and 70s suggested they represented some sort of female aesthetic.

O’Keeffe, who didn’t like being thought of as a “female artist” anyway, was having none of it; it said more about the critics’ minds than about her own, she insisted. (She also denied painting bones was any sort of comment on death or the Great Depression, saying they were just objects.)

Well, maybe. Sometimes you should trust the art, not the artist. They’re hardly erotica, but they have a rich sensuality you don’t see in her white skulls. The same dichotomy is evident in some of the photos of O’Keeffe herself included in the exhibition: the gaunt, angular face seems to belong to a different person from the softly curved nude studies Stieglitz took of her, which caused a sensation when he showed them in public back in 1921.

The curators offer another explanation, though: chromesthesia, a neurological condition in which some people associate sounds with colours. She may not have had the condition, but she was intrigued by it, and some of her early work – such as Music – Pink and Blue No 1 – was an overt attempt to paint music, to do for the eyes what music did for the ears. So perhaps you can see works such as White Iris as neither sexual nor botanical, but as American symphonies.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Tate Modern, July 6 to October 30 2016. Adults £17.20, concessions £15.40.