Under the helm of new Director, Frances Morris, and with the opening of the superlative extension, the Switch House, this exhibition at Tate Modern is a spectacular blockbuster. The gallery has a target of wanting almost a third of a million people to see this show. And with the extension drawing in over a million visitors in its first six weeks and the near-universal praise this exhibition has been met with, it has every likelihood of achieving its goals.
O'Keeffe is an undeniable American icon and quite famously the stance of this exhibition has been to challenge and expand upon the idea that her work is fixated on female genitalia. Time spent with these works, spanning a large part of the last century demonstrates a vast gulf between this simplistic single minded focus and the reality of a whole Modernist universe. Here is a world painted on canvas exploring the quotidian and urban through to the hallucinatory desert light; the vast landscapes of increasing abstraction to the more detailed giant floral studies.
The opening of the new Tate has readdressed the balance of art history and of the works on display, half are now made by women. This has been a long time coming of course but for an institution this size and so globally focused, it is trailblazing modern and contemporary art equality. The summer shows of O'Keeffe and Mona Hatoum (now closed), although both in the original building (rebranded the Boiler House), have further cemented the resolve of the director to promote women and their place in the canon of art history.
There are no O'Keeffe paintings held by any UK public art institutions. This makes the exhibition that much more remarkable in that the expanse of work on display is staggering. The thematic touch points and the route through the work and the years show a life in motion, an artist of formidable talent living, learning, losing and winning. Here is a person becoming obsessed by the world around her, tiring of it, looking for new inspiration and celebrating in finding it.
That former critics may have seen lady gardens in some of these paintings where the artist has only seen plants from a real one, is to fail to see the repetition and familiar in all things. A fold of skin can look like the cracks of a mountain side, a shadow can appear as a bruise and vice versa. Our visual language is at once both impossibly complex and crudely simple; we look up at the sky and the clouds form faces and smile down. The way of the mind is to find familiarity and that some of O'Keeffe's works can draw comparison to intimacies is no more a truth than the potential pornography of landscapes.
And in a way, what sexy landscapes she made. Undulations of rock, New Mexican sun saturating colours far beyond the experience of an English eye, or that of a New Yorker back at the time these works were made. A small set of paintings show the impossible blue sky of the desert viewed through the bleached frame of carcass hip bones. The actual becomes abstract.
Far too many exhibitions of this scale fall short of the hype - this one exceeds its expectations and re-evaluates O'Keeffe not on the terms of being a woman artist but of being one of the most significant painters of the twentieth century. The show marks the centenary of her work first being shown and is a highlight of the Tate's more recent history as well as a perfect accompaniment to its grand reopening.
http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/georgia-okeeffe until October 30th