Beyond the Lady Garden

Georgia O’Keeffe (Tate Modern 6 July-30 October 2016)

you hung all your own associations with my flowers on my flowers and you write about my flowers as I think and see what you think and see of the flowers and I don’t”

“Miss O’Keeffe’s drawings … were of intense interest from a psycho-analytical point of view” Camera Work MDCCCCXII

Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing is a blistering anatomy of the ways in which critics dismiss female authors. I suspect the same is true in the way we treat female artists. So many of them are just plain ignored, not part of the history, whereas others get related to more famous (artist) husbands. The recent Barbara Hepworth exhibition at Tate Britain is a case in point — the juxtaposition of her work with Ben Nicholson’s (much as I like him), risks privileging the influence in one way.

The muse is female.

And so we come to Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986), who I in my ignorant way had assumed was just a painter of flowers (see also Mrs Delany with her collages and Winnifred Nicholson). And those flowers were, well, obviously, yanno, well, um.

Yonic.

Vaginal.

If the pen is the penis, then the paintbrush might as well be a, um.

Flowers.

Lady gardens.

What should be immediately clear from this exhibition — too big an exhibition I suspect, as is often the Tate Modern way — is that there is much more to her flowers and indeed they form a tiny part of her output. Even, perhaps, the least interesting part.

She’s born in Wisconsin and moves to Virginia, but comes to the attention of photographer and curator Alfred Stieglitz, undeniably a fine photographer. He’s married, but tempts her across to New York and shows her work in the 219 gallery he owns.

Not only that, but he takes photographs of her — not all nudes, but a goodly deal of the ones on display were, close in on breasts, torsos, stomachs, belly button and genitalia. Great photos, yes, but a woman dissected for our pleasure, and apparently he’d done much the same to .

O’Keeffe’s work is largely abstract at this point — vertical ribbons of colour with curves or diagonals cutting across them. I always find myself in a Rorsach diagnosis with abstract, narrativising them perhaps, and you can read them as curtains (a domestic space) or even as legs or …

Quite.

A painting such as Grey Lines with Black, Blue and Yellow (c. 1923) was in fact a response to head of the Teachers College, Columbia University, Alon Bement playing music, and a lot of these paintings seem to be responses. Meanwhile, another of Stieglitz’s protégés, Paul Strand is mixing street photography with photos of objects flattened into abstract patterns of black and white. Stieglitz was to turn more abstract and photograph clouds as part of his Equivalent States series — a homage perhaps to John Constable, but also an influence on O’Keeffe’s trajectory.

As Stieglitz and O’Keeffe set up life together, in a circle that included Paul and Rebecca Strand, John Marin, Paul Rosenfeld, Marsden Hartley and Dorothy Norman, the hunt was on to find a distinctly American artistic voice, a means of responding to New York, although the two aims were likely incompatible, at least for O’Keeffe. Strand went about it by sneaking photos of the passers by, but also with almost abstract images of commuters walking past Wall Street buildings. Marin produced a stunning painting of Downtown New York, whereas Stieglitz took photos from the various apartments in skyscrapers they occupied. O’Keeffe painted the skyscrapers at night, often from street level, but also elevated views across the city — Untitled (New York) and East Pier No 3 show the river, the factory, the cranes and derricks and a single church spire. It’s like an L. S. Lowry, although just predates them.

They had a holiday home at Lake George, where he took photographs and she painted (Strand took a great photo of a baby buggy there, but felt he was trespassing on another man’s territory.) O’Keeffe’s landscapes of the lake are almost symmetrical along a horizontal line, the hills and mountains reflected, the composition tightly cropped like a photo. There she could also paint flowers, the Jimson weeds, pansies, iris, poppies, huge, overblown, but almost cropped.

We might associate flowers with the feminine, although it was Blake’s rose that was sick, along with nature and domestic spaces, but we mare projecting. I don’t think that there is a single painting of a human being in any of the paintings on display here — her A Man from the Desert (1941) is presumably a scarecrow. There’s Lake George, Coat and Red (1919) which may include Stieglitz’S black cape with a red lining, but he’s not there. The body, that abject definition of the female, is absent and so perhaps we project that onto the canvases. Taking our cue from Stieglitz and the early reviews of her work, she is painting anatomy but sublimated. Clearly those flowers are —

Really?

I mean, I’m not exactly a connoisseur, but I think that reading takes a great deal of squinting, even if some feminist art critics seemed to follow that up. It seems a way of making her interesting whilst dismissing her; the paintings aren’t quite proper. Stieglitz as patron, editor of the journal Camera Work, boyfriend and husband, was managing her reception. O’Keeffe was to deny the interpretation and, despite the fact that she might not be best placed to perceive her own unconscious psyche, I’d take her at her word.

A wider world was calling. Strand takes her up to Canada and she paints Nature Forms — Gaspé (1932), landscape as abstract, a storm in a spiral, full of flow and power, blurring sky, sea and land. It’s sublime rather than frightening. And she follows Hartley down to New Mexico, where a wealthy woman on her second husband heading to her third, with an unlikely collection of surnames, Mabel Dodge Luhan, is collecting artists. The land is red and yellow, to my eyes barren and sterile, but I suspect to her utterly fertile. The churches and other buildings are made from clay, adobe, there’s a church that might date back to 1000AD (which definitely gives me pause). It’s a landscape carved out by indigenous people and Spanish colonisation and… she finds America.

Someone said that New York is not America, but an island off the coast of America. For O’Keeffe the authentic America is west of the Hudson River, into the south west, what she calls the Faraway.

(Wasn’t that Enid Blyton? Maybe it’s somewhere near Whileaway.)

Ansel Adams is documenting the people and the buildings in photographs, and snaps a few of her too. She’s a whole woman, even if she seems to be masquerading.

There are few flowers here, but there are lots of bones. There are deer skulls, mule skulls, and so forth, in European art language part way to a memento mori, the mutability of life, or part of a Dalí-Esther surreal juxtaposition of the skin beneath the skull. The juxtaposition of a white skull with blue and red stripes points toward an American symbolism. For O’Keeffe, the bones were more alive than the animals that they were once part of, they were solid rather than surreal. It’s hard to shake off the echoes, though, as a skull of a ram reminds me of the very European Herne the Hunter. But then there’s Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettia (1936) and From the Faraway, Nearby (1937) itself, stunning works, seizing control of scale and perspective.

Stieglitz was clearly trying to keep control. She decided to ship a barrel of bones back East, but Stieglitz co-opted them, photographing her hands and a skull before she could paint them. He tried to keep his territory marked.

He’s not a villain, of course, I like his work, but still. And from all accounts they remained in love even if she was moving away (and he toward Norman). Driving away, even.

At least this time it was her hands.

She’d rented a place in Alcade, New Mexico, and found a new landscape of interest, a set of limestone cliffs in the Chama River Valley near Abiquiú, known as the White Place, and in 1934 spends time at the Ghost Ranch, where she finds a rock formation that becomes known as the Black Place. She painted both locations, along with the ranch, repeatedly, although the exhibitions focuses more on the black than the white. Here we have clefts and vertiginous heights, again hinting of bodies and buttocks and, well, maybe, but it is a stunning set of works that continue into the Second World War.

Eventually she buys the Rancho de los Burros on the Ghost Ranch, because of the views from the patio, and an inspiring door in the wall in its courtyard. She is to return to this door — an echo of a teaching exercise she had set decades before about the use of painterly space: draw a square and add a door. Domestic space becomes abstract — in at least one painting, My Last Door (1952-54) becomes almost a Malevich black square on a terracotta background. She is also painting the cottonwood trees and the blue skies — a return to skies — viewed through holes in the bones. Oddly the bones are flattened — white with grey — with an almost concave sky visible in the space.

She is returning to her earlier abstracts, with vertical stripes disrupted by diagonals and smoke, such as Blue I (1958) and Blue II (1958). I want to read them as the sky viewed through drapes, but I’m domesticating them again. And then there are the paintings of native, local culture.

She has also seen this landscape from above, from a plane, and she paints this new perspective — desert and plain and sky. Sometimes it looks like airbrush or acrylic, Rothko as landscape, but it is her own language. Stieglitz had died in 1946, and she was definitely her own artist now.

The exhibition leaves her in the 1960s, although she has a decade of painting left, with failing eyesight and health. Like Hepworth, we don’t see the physical decline.

There is no need to sexualise her and there is no need to make special pleading for her as a woman painter. She is an artist. She made deals, she negotiated, she is more than “just” the flowers. And this show depicts her in a wealth of detail.

To Be Frink

Elisabeth Frink: The Presence of Sculpture (Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham Lakeside Arts, 25 November 2015–28 February 2016)

My sculptures of the male figure are both man and mankind. In these two categories are all the sources of all my ideas for the human figure. Man, because I enjoy looking at the male body and this has always given me and probably always will, the impetus and the energy for a purely sensuous approach to sculptural form. I like to watch a man walking and swimming and running and being. I think that my figures of men now say so much more about how a human feels than how he looks anatomically. I can sense in a man’s body a combination of strength and vulnerability — not as weakness but as the capacity to survive through stoicism or passive resistance, or to suffer or feel

One for PigeonhedOutside Caffè Nerd on Dover Street, just off Piccadilly, is a small equestrian statue, usually with a pigeon on its head. I sat by it a few times before I realised it was an Elisabeth Frink, and I confess that I don’t recall why I began to pay attention to her. There was a small show at Woking I took myself off to a couple of years ago and materials at the Beaux Arts Gallery, London.

In my mental map, British twentieth-century scuplture was dominated by three names — Henry Moore, Barbara Hepworth and Eduardo Paolozzi — before we get into the Caros and the Gormleys and the more conceptual sculptors. Moore and Hepworth seem to occupy a curious middle ground between neoromanticism and modernism — shapes somewhere between the abstract and the bodily, sensual, demanding to be caressed. Paolozzi is plainly of the machine age — the aesthetics of collage and the cyborg, Lego bricks and circuit boards in bronze.

Standing ManWhilst all three are producers of solid work, Moore and Hepworth are more abstract and Paolozzi is more surreal than Frink. Frink’s sculpture has an extraordinary physicality to it. Her statues are of walking, running, jumping, flying and falling men — yeah, pretty well all men — and clearly there is tension between such movement and the fitness of bronze or concrete. Even the standing men seem to loom, arms behind their back, cock and balls hanging, solid presences, somewhere between threatening and sexualised.

Riace IIIImagine: some of these were commissioned for the headquarters of W. H. Smiths. Remember that when you try to get your free chocolate bar with a copy of The Mail on Sunday. The Walking Man became one of the Riace, named for the bronze statues found in the sea in 1972, and is in white face, one of Frink’s odd experiments in coloured bronze. Apparently her statue of a dog was coloured; the Desert Quarter (1985) bronze is white. Are these angels or demons?
Desert Quarter
She’s presented here in a curiously dialectic way; on the one had she was a child during the Second World War although she knew of the horrors of Belsen and the atomic bombs, the anxieties of the Cold War; on the other hand her public commissions are associated with the Utopianism of the Garden City and New Town movement in the post-war rebuilding. Sculpture was meant to inspire people — whether outside civic buildings or shopping centres, or in the new Coventry and Liverpool Metro Cathedrals.

Her Christ, in a gouache, is muscular, the emphasis on the physicals over the divine. There are pictures here of the crucified Christ, the body emphasised over the cross. There is a Mary and a nun, and a study for Judas, which is also known as the warrior. Her military men — the flying men, the air men — always already seem traumatised, the sculptural equivalent of post-traumatic stress syndrome. And that makes me wonder about her Judas; he betrayed with a kiss, he was paid his thirty pieces of silver, he bought the field and hung himself. Was Judas a warrior — did he fight with his demons and lose?

BirdmanThere is her Birdman, apparently commissioned for a school but thought destroyed (like her first commission, but a damaged version was found this year), a tall, gangly man, with stubs on his back, decommissioned wings perhaps, a fallen angel among men. There is her Running Man (1978), not, apparently, an athlete, but rather a fugitive from some unspecified conflict. Her Flying Men (1982) are hang gliders but seem about to cast themselves into space — inspired by one Léo Valentin (1919-56) who made his own birdlike wings in a vain attempt to fly. Is he also her Falling Man (1961)?

BoarThere are animals — lots of horses, sometimes with riders, a boar for Harlow, warthogs and dogs. Dogs whose heads you want to pat but mustn’t. There are birds, but of ill omen, her Harbinger Bird III (1961) and Warrior Bird (1953), corvids, menacing; on the other hand her eagles, often designed for pulpits and linked to the Kennedy assassination (there is also an uneasy sculpture, The Assassins, but all of them are uneasy).

And of course, there is the baboon, commissioned for London Zoo, but it’s a different version here. And there’s a water colour, apparently inspired by an Australian trip although that makes little sense, of an encounter between a man and a baboon. Apparently the baboon is unimpressed by the man.

BaboonBaboon

So her subject is man rather than woman. She may have done mother and child pairs like Hepworth and Moore, but none are here on display, and she was clearly a mother. The few female statues here are caped or cowled. Is there an avoidance of female objectification? Is her aim to objectify men? There were warrior women she could have portrayed, traumatised refugees. But clearly that was not for her.

Because You’re Hepworth It

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World (Tate Britain, 24 June-25 October 2015)

I’ve already written a rather grumpy account of this exhibition, which has a few things that annoyed me. I should also add that the plinths bearing the sculptures could do with a second label describing the work, since sod’s law meant that on almost every occasion I would look at the other three sides first. Sometimes, of course, the label turns out to be on the wall. Grr.

I was fairly sure, however, that the work would transcend my caveats — and so, having read the catalogue, I went back for a second look.

WakefieldMeanwhile, up in Wakefield, the Hepworth is showing a film of the 1968 Tate Hepworth retrospective made by Bruce Beresford. What strikes me immediately about this is how many of the works of art are freely visible and not behind glass. I guess that she was still alive then and could have repaired anything that got broken — the insurance is presumably much higher now. It is so frustrating though. We’re told (she tells us? — and I get the sense from this film of Hepworth speaking unlike the bloody awful Dudley Ashton Shaw Sculpture in a Landscape documentary where a highly theatrical Cecil Day-Lewis intones Jacquetta Hawkes’s poetry in an odd example of barking despite having a dog of your own) that she is interested in the oval, the vertical and the human. From my notes — maybe from the film — I’ve written

inner and outer form, nut in shell, child in womb, shell/crystal, puritanical and geometric spiritual

And then I’ve added (and this is me): modern or romantic (and that is a ponder for another post).

So we’ll walk through the rooms again — beginning with the maze of vitrines. This is her early handcarvings, broadly speaking figurative, realist, mimetic. There are animals, torsos, seated figures and a baby. These works are direct carved on various kinds of wood and marble, and the missing name here is Leon Underwood, who seems to have been the master of the technique.

Hepworth’s shown here among her contemporaries, largely — husband John Skeaping, Henry Moore, Jacob Epstein and I noted two women, Ursula Edgcumbe and Elsie Henderson for future reference. The cynical side of me wonders if this downplays her — she was not unique. Skeaping’s Buffalo (1930) in lapis lazuli is beautiful and I think her side by side doves (1927) are better than Epstein’s one on top of the other (1914-15), but frankly you want your Picasso for doves and Epstein’s strengths lie elsewhere. The positive side is that she can hold her own in a wider community of sculptors between the wars. Infant (1929) is perhaps the most striking, the narrow Torso (1932), made from African blackwood and more like a totem, is the most Hepworthian.

By this point, of course, she had been born in Wakefield in 1903 and studied art in Leeds (meeting that Henry Moore chappy), moving to London where it was as cheap and as easy to get to Paris and Europe than back to Yorkshire. (There’s your north/south divide in a nutshell.) She was runner up to a prize that took her to Italy and which was to inspire her work and led her to marry the actual winner, John Skeaping.

She split from Skeaping in 1933 — the catalogue suggests in part that he was not sympathetic to her Christian Science — and had already met Ben Nicholson who at that point (1931) was married to the artist Winifred Nicholson. The two became lovers and moved in together. So in the second room we have the fruits of their lives together, with artists of different ages inspiring each other. The cynical reading is he helped her, the radical reading is she helped her. I write as a fan of Ben Nicholson — who triangulated romantic landscape, still life, abstraction and the faux naïf. His landscapes flatten into abstraction, and through the 1920s and 1930s the shapes became simplified into squares and rectangles — in time he met with Mondrian, although I think the link was more through Winifred. In time he removed colour, to produce a kind of white, almost flat, sculpture. His art seems to be an exploration of how much can be removed from an image and remain something you can see.

It has to be said that the influence of Hepworth on Nicholson is more obvious than the reverse — I’d be clearer in seeing her as a muse to him than vice versa. Throughout his pictures there are a series of double faces in profile, reduced to lines, intersecting, overlapping, Mr and Mrs. We see this motif in her self portrait in sonogram, and perhaps in one of the sculptures where the face appears to be two intersecting faces. It wasn’t immediately clear what else aesthetically she was getting out of the deal, beyond shifting to a point when she gave more abstract descriptive names for her work. Perhaps he gave her a scratchier sensibility. He was apparently more sympathetic to her religious beliefs than Skeaping had been.

With Nicholson she travelled again in mainland Europe, meeting Hans Arp, Pablo Picasso and Piet Mondrian. She contributed photos of her work to art journals such as Circle and Abstraction-Création (which included Marlow Moss, I see, and had odd ideas about alphabetical order). Mondrian was later to live downstairs from them in London, before his final move to New York. A lot of her pieces of the later 1930s seem to be two smooth pieces — often discs, placed together on a plinth. Apparently both pieces weren’t necessarily fixed, so a degree of adjustment could then be made. Among these pieces were works called Mother and Child — the Madonna and Child trope being oddly missing from the first room — although apparently she broke from tradition by having these as distinct rather than single pieces.


In 1943, she seems to have started adding string to her work. I seem to recall Moore did something similar, but I don’t know who got there first. Sculpture and Colour (Oval Form) Pale Blue and Red (see what I mean about those titles?) is white, almost eye shaped, but hollowed out with two holes. In one you can see the blue interior, and red strings from the edge of the hole to a single, vanishing, point. It is as if goes to infinity. Through the other, side, hole, you can see the strings from a different angle.

By the fourth room we’re up to the Second World War. One side has some of the drawings and paintings she did in a hospital of various operations, after her daughter was ill, apparently intrigued by the similarities between doctors’ and artists’ hands — and I think I saw more of these at Mascalls Gallery once. You need a strong nerve. Another wall has more abstract pieces — the exegetical text tells us she didn’t have time or space for more during the war, but the Hepworth in Wakefield notes the way that she used two dimensional work as a way into sculpture as well as on its own merits. But central to the room are four pieces of carved wood, Pendour (1947), Pelagos (1946), Wave (1943-44) and Oval Sculpture (1943), some plane, some elm, all but hollowed out and curled. They perhaps have the look of hazelnuts nibbled by squirrels, but are beautiful and the best pieces in the exhibition.


By the fifth room time begins to trip over itself. At some point she’s moved to St Ives and has a studio where she lives with a garden space and has rented the Palais de Danse as a second studio. She has become more ambitious, wanting to make bigger pieces; the catalogue notes her wish to crack America. Around three walls we see photos of some of her works in the studio and in situ, her big pieces for Mullard electronics (1956), John Lewis (1963) and the United Nations (1961-64), and we also see her montages imagining sculpture in rural or modernist locations. This is also the room with the ropey documentary.

Behind it, the exhibition redeems itself — four pieces made from a heavy African wood called guarer. The catalogue explains there is a mystery as to who got the wood for her and who paid for it, and what happened to the parts left over. They are larger cousins to the wooden pieces in the previous room; they seem to be experiments in how much you can take away from a form and still have some form.

Ah, you can look, but you mustn’t touch…

Finally, there’s the recreation of the Rietveld Pavilion (1956); concrete air bricks for a wall, partly filled in, some kind of wooden roof, and (here) an end wall purporting to be forest. Hepworth’s work was shown here in 1965 and since. It doesn’t fool us we’re outside, but there are five or so bronze pieces. Some have forms within forms, are twisted, some might be weathered anvils. These are clearly not mimetic, but nor do they feel organic — they are their own thing. Their sublime beauty is enough to make you forget that it’s not until 1975 that Hepworth died, in a fire.

 

 

 

 

 

 

But Hepworth is at her best in St Ives and Wakefield and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park and Edinburgh Botanical Gardens and at the front of Tate Britain and in a garden on Attebury Street.

Hep Hep Hooray (Part Two to Follow)

Barbara Hepworth: Sculpture for a Modern World (Tate Britain 24 June-25 October 2015)

Hepworth plaqueI really like Barbara Hepworth’s work. It has a kind of tactility to it, a sensuousness — it cries out to be touched and caressed. I’ve been up to Wakefield and looked at the plasters and maquettes and the blue plaques, and down to St Ives to see the studio and at some point saw the hospital drawings.

So I was looking forward to this Tate overview, in the same space where they showed Henry Moore.

I’m going to do two write ups, because I want to do it justice. But this time round, I’m going to be critical whilst thinking you should really go.

Major galleries still rarely do one women shows (although note Tate Modern this spring and summer).

There’s always a danger when providing context that this takes away rather than enriches your appreciation of the materials. In the first room, there are lots of hand carved sculpture, not all by Hepworth. We’re told that one of her strengths was direct carving — inspired in this by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Jacob Epstein and Eric Gill, but also by the fact that the was apparently a whole lot more of this than we realised. Everyone was up to it. One missing name was Leon Underwood, whom I might well come back to, who was a tutor to Henry Moore. Was she that special?

Before she married Moore, she married Ben Nicholson and before that John Skeaping — another direct carver — and there is a room of works by Nicholson responding to hers and vice versa. I like Nicholson’s work, but, again, I’m a little worried it takes away from her. I suspect not, but.

Hepworth SculptureIn a later room there’s a documentary, Figures in a Landscape (Dudley Shaw Ashton, 1953), with Cecil Day-Lewis reading bad poetry over footage of the Cornish coast, telling us about how history and then Man has sculpted the landscape — you know that “invisible” sexism that defaults to and his? You want to scream, YOU KNOW HEPWORTH IS A WOMAN, YES? Eventually her sculptures start appearing in the landscape, and for a more you assume the apes will start worshiping them and a certain theme will appear on the soundtrack. Or you assume it’s the inspiration for Led Zeppelin’s Presence.

At the end of the show, there’s a recreation of the Rietveld Pavilion from a Dutch sculpture garden, with sculpture finally naked — up to then, more or less, everything is in vitrines. I know that hands can leave marks and grease and patina — but I don’t recall Moore’s being so glassed off. Were there ropes? It’s great to get a full 360 view of them, but it makes the exhibition a maze (where have they hidden the label this time?) and its frustration because you just wanna touch. And at the end it’s not clear if you can.

Hepworth died in 1975.

The pavilion was 1965.

Did she not sculpt for a decade? Was the later work earlier? Or was it all large scale stuff like the UN piece or the John Lewis’s one?

It just stops.

Did I miss a chronology of the artist? Okay, the exhibition guide tells you she died in a fire, but it still feel a little off-key.

The really sad thing is there is fantastic stuff here, but I’m not sure justice is done to it. I will go back, I suspect in late August now, having read the catalogue, and say more.