As I walk across the Millennium Bridge, with my back to St Paul’s Cathedral, Tate Modern looks like a stout guardian watching over the South Bank. The Thames flowing beneath me, the other passers‐by, the flickering of the night lights – all this movement clashes with the thick, quiet stillness of my destination. ‘Art changes we change’: as I move closer, the four words reach out to me, spelled out in clear bright blocks of light on Tate’s façade, beaming like pearls around the guardian’s sombre face.
The Georgia O’ Keeffe exhibition at Tate attempts to dismiss the most common interpretation given to O’Keeffe’s art, namely that it is deeply erotic. It denies that O’Keeffe’s flowers are symbols of sex: she painted the iris dark, humid and purple and the calla lily long‐stemmed because this is what these flowers look like. It argues that there is more to O’Keeffe’s oeuvre than just those sinuous lines: the calm dry Texan landscapes, the metallic shining streets of New York city. It is ironic to see so much of the artist’s corpus exhibited here – it is really the body of her work, the question at stake. The exhibition theme builds on a concern of the artist: “when people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they are really talking about their own affairs”, reads the bulky black quote running along one wall. The line is effective, though I am weary of quotes extrapolated from their context.
I like the exhibition at Tate because it challenges an established view. The risk, however, in removing the sex is that you also miss the appeal. O’ Keeffe (1887 – 1986) was sexy and so was her art. They both provoked people, eyes and ideas. She was naturally beautiful, as I can see from the white and black photographs of her, without make up and, on occasion, without clothes. In truth, though, O’Keeffe has nothing of the languid nude; her body is shown but not shown off. Her real seduction is that of the mind. She pioneered abstract painting, experimented with colours, sought a visual translation for music and became a key artist of the 20th century. O’Keeffe worked in a man’s world – to assert her presence and talent was already a tough challenge, to paint explicitly erotic scenes would have been next to impossible. So the exhibition at Tate rightly emphasises that her paintings are not graphic; their sensuality, however, is undeniable. The forms are hinted at, the shapes only suggested; what is most appealing in her works is precisely their unsolvable ambiguity.
At the end of September, the exhibition ‘Bliss’ launched at Nahmad Projects. Exhibited are paintings by Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919) and installations by Felix Gonzalez‐Torres (1957–1996) and Jason Rhoades (1964–2006). For a short while, O’Keeffe worked, for a short while, at the same time as these artists. In one way, the artists all meet. ‘Bliss’ complements the exhibition at Tate. Rhoades’ installation features a book laid open beneath neon lights, meant as an image of the female sex; Gonzalez‐Torres’ work consists of a thousand sweets spread across the floor, to represent desire. Nahmad Projects celebrates eroticism in art, Tate denies it.
What I particularly enjoyed about the Nahmad Projects show was being given the benefit of the doubt. I don’t mean to say I like the installations more than O’Keeffe’s work. In fact, arrangements of things generally lack the nuances achievable with paint. But I liked to know that the rest was up to me. There was the chance I’d read too much into the book, or that the sweets were not to my taste: the installations are ambiguous and this is also their appeal. They require the viewer to undergo a time-consuming process of understanding, whose point of arrival is unknown. I will never know whether Gonzalez-Torres and Rhoades really meant what I now see in their work.
I think it is wrong to say what the iris is or, indeed, is not. One thing we can learn from contemporary art is that this ignorance is the purest form of bliss. It allows us to look at art without prejudice; it seduces our mind, and so we are left to think. As I walked away from Nahmad Projects, I went back to the pearls of wisdom I found whilst walking on the bridge. Art changes, we change; not the other way around.