The art world has long been male dominated and women have been marginalised and eclipsed by clichés given by their own male peers. The Tate Modern wants to break that myth and is bringing works from talented but forgotten modern artists into its exhibitions. In the words of the new director, Frances Morris, the Tate now have "the commitment to show the real history of art and the contribution made by many women who have been overlooked for many reasons."
As part of this recent effort, the Tate Modern has brought to London the biggest exhibition outside the US of Georgia O'Keeffe's work. O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century and of US modernism. In spite of her talent, she spent much of her career rallying against the persistent gender divide in the avant-garde art world. Among her peers, she was considered first and foremost a feminine exponent but she rejected all gendered labels of her work. At the time, male artists were considered more successful, and there was little she could do little to change the status quo, therefore she preferred not to be considered a 'female' artist.
This personal preference brought her much criticism, and it consolidated the idea of her as an artist that represents female iconography through her flower paintings and her abstractions. Even though her works were compared to the distinctive cisgender labels of man vs. woman, she refused to be seen through a gendered lens. Consequently, she refused to be part of an exhibition celebrating women in art in Los Angeles because she didn’t want to be tagged by a legacy solely outlined by men.
With this exhibition, the Tate is looking to break any misconception the public might have and present O'Keeffe's work as it has never been seen before. Starting with a display of her earliest mature work -monochromatic abstractions in charcoal-, the exhibition examines six decades of production, with photographs, books and works by other artists that locate her firmly in the context of her unconventional life. This Tate Modern exhibition actually reveals a progressive artist ahead of her time.
Throughout the exhibition, it is possible to see her as a landscape artist, she is immersing in nature and her paintings represent her own experience. Her works, inspired by the New Mexico scenery, show a complex side of the American culture. Western stories mixed with the reality of Native American communities, created a rich, colourful production of bright red and orange. She not only represents modernism but she also represents what it is to be American.
O'Keeffe shows that she has succeeded in a male dominated environment, but she has also influenced many female artist. For instance, in 1946 she became the first female artist to have an exhibition in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Her achievements made it possible for women to imagine a career as an artist. She is a milestone in and she is a front runner in modernism, she is a foundation in the movement and a major contributor, the gender is not an issue.
To make meaningful progress, one should move beyond the average focus on gender stereotypes. O'Keeffe showed that her paintings are not feminine iconography but they are the expression of her immersion in nature, it was part of her experience of the world. People see her in a very gendered way, in some sense, she has been eclipsed by her own fame. The Tate has clearly returned to the artist's voice, focusing on promoting her work rather than her gender, so it would be only fair that for the public to do the same.