Of the 13 rooms in the Tate Modern’s expansive new Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition — which is the largest ever to be staged outside of America, and features over 100 major works spanning six decades of her career — one is dedicated to the artist’s relationship with her husband Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and founder of the 291 gallery in New York. In the context of her work, which made her a central figure in American Modernism, their connection was “incredibly important,” says Tanya Barson, curator of the new show. “They were together for 30 years, and they had a decisive influence on one another.”
O’Keeffe was the subject of a “multi-part portrait” taken by Stieglitz: more than 300 photographs that he took between 1917 and 1937, several of which are on display here. Her poses are confident and deliberate, her head always held high; the portraits seem to capture not only her distinctive style — dark layers of clothing and swept-back hair — but an undeniable strength. “I think we can think of her both as a muse, but also as a collaborator in these works, because I don’t think they would have the power that they have without her cooperation, her collaboration, and the way in which she constructed her own sense of identity,” Barson says.
Over the course of their time together, there was a creative call and response between the two artists, who often portrayed the same landscapes or buildings in their work. In 1923, Stieglitz photographed the sun shining through the clouds, with O’Keeffe nowhere to be seen — but he named the image “Portrait of Georgia No. 3.” The following year, she countered with her own sky-inspired work, “A Celebration” — a dreamy oil painting of clouds on canvas, which is thought to be a romantic tribute to their relationship. In an essay in the new exhibition’s accompanying catalog, Sarah Greenough, a senior curator of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, describes the intensity of their bond: In the summer of 1929, when O’Keeffe traveled to New Mexico and Stieglitz remained in New York, Greenough says “he wrote to her three, four, five times a day, letters up to 40 pages in length.”
Throughout her career, O’Keeffe was dogged by claims that her work had feminine, sexual undertones — an interpretation that she vehemently resisted. Stieglitz was one of the culprits: “He was the first person to apply Freudian readings to her work,” says Barson. “And subsequently, he wrote in 1919 a piece about women in art, and he talks about women receiving the world through the womb, and the mind coming second.” Though he was supportive of women — he promoted female artists in his gallery — his gendering of O’Keeffe’s work always frustrated her. Her own words, often reproaching her critics, are quoted in every room of the show: “When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs,” she writes.