Monday, 18 July 2016

a trip to the tate

I saw the Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition today at Tate Modern, and had my first view of the new Tate extension in the flesh.  The first was not quite what I'd expected, and the second even better than I'd hoped.

I associated Georgia O'Keeffe with outsize, slightly psychedelic paintings of flowers, into which have been read all sorts of symbolic sexual meanings.  There are some of those in the exhibition, a white iris with petals stained the sort of pale pink that puts your teeth on edge and green that was never seen in nature, and two huge red oriental poppies placed on an even redder ground.  I liked the poppies, but would not have felt comfortable having to live with the iris.  The Tate knew that giant flowers were what the public were expecting, because they have used a big white, night flowering species (whose name I have irritatingly forgotten so couldn't look it up afterwards) as the artwork for the poster and the covers of the exhibition guide and big fat catalogue.

But most of the exhibition, and it is a big show, is not paintings of flowers.  There are abstracts and New York cityscapes from her early years, and a great swathe of paintings she made of the New Mexico landscape, and some of her last landscapes which are more abstract and bigger.  The exhibition is peppered with black and white photographs by her husband Alfred Stieglitz, some of the city but most of O'Keeffe herself, which show her to have been a beautiful woman with the most marvellous hands.  Or rather, as an interesting and striking woman who could have presented herself as conventionally beautiful if she had chosen to do so.

O'Keeffe was enraptured by the New Mexico landscape, the quality of the light and the air and wind.  I could tell from looking at her paintings that she had been deeply in love with the area, but realised having watched various thrillers set along the border I associated it with drug smuggling and gang violence rather than solitude and peace.  Her massive, plain black cross set against a starry sky made me think of some novel along the lines of a Graham Greene, ending in the death of a defrocked or disillusioned priest.  That is probably not what Georgia O'Keeffe meant by it at all.

So I was very interested to see the exhibition, while not immediately adding Georgia O'Keeffe to the list of artists whose work I love.  On the other hand, I loved the new extension.  Brutalism is back in fashion.  It is big and muscular with an angular twist like a 1980s Rosenthal vase, clad in a marvellous brick work lattice.  Inside are generous corridors and tall ceilings, and walls and ceilings meeting each other at odd and satisfying angles.  The new Members room is large with plenty of space between the tables so that you are not crammed in on top of other people's conversations and can walk about to look at the view.  There are windows that open, and on the tenth floor a viewing platform running all the way round the outside of the building.  There is a bridge on the fourth floor like a much more subtantial version of the one in the Star Wars Death Star linking back to the original building.  I really, really liked it, having held off going for the Members opening because that was going to be so crowded, with queues.

One thing puzzles me.  The turbine hall smelt gently but definitely of engine oil.  I don't remember that from previous visits, so was it a residue of the building works?  Or being piped into the space, a scent installation evoking the building's power station past?

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