The name “Georgia O’Keeffe” is legendary, conjuring up images of skulls in deserts and flowers evocative of intimate femininity. An enigmatic figure that straddled early American Modernism, she became iconic for feminism and continues to inspire artists.

The AGO and the Tate Modern have partnered to mount this magnificent retrospective. It lays bare the range of her subject matter and addresses the myth of erotic symbolism. My own art historical instruction was coloured by these misguided perceptions. The exhibition covers six decades of her work, from early abstract charcoal drawings that were first exhibited in 1917 to her last paintings wrought in the desert regions of New Mexico.

O’Keeffe was born into a farming family, leaving her with a disposition for wide open expanses that she later gravitated towards in New Mexico. By a critical stroke of good fortune, her charcoal abstractions came to the attention of Alfred Stieglitz, photographer and art gallerist. He showed them at his Gallery 291 in 1917 and they began a relationship, marrying in 1924. Stieglitz was older and offered security so she could paint. They lived on the 30th floor of the Shelton Hotel, where several of her iconic skyscraper paintings were painted. Stieglitz’ artistic circle was striving to find a unique American voice. Precisionism was a manifestation like Futurism that eulogized the city’s Corporate-style architecture through geometric shapes. Painters like Charles Demuth epitomized this trend and O’Keeffe’s skyscrapers would seem affiliated.

Stieglitz photographed her nude extensively and encouraged the perception that she was investing her abstraction with erotic content. This she denied. Many of Stieglitz’ photographs are included in the exhibition, along with other greats like Ansel Adams, who traversed New Mexico with her on occasion.

Of note in all these works is O’Keeffe’s exceptional ability to compose a painting with a minimum of detail in a manner that imparts a sense of mystery. It’s significant to learn that she rejected her art education and re-approached art from a different perspective, one offered by Arthur Wesley Dow’s book, Composition. This book (pdf) can be downloaded via Project Gutenburg and it’s extremely important in evaluating her work. Dow was opposed to the current academic method of teaching art through mimetic drawing. He espouses composition as the correct starting point with subordinate line used to elicit harmonies. He endorses the Japanese definition of painting as an “Art of Two Dimensions”, with an avoidance of aspects like shadows that reinforce a mimetic sense of reality. “Notan” is the Japanese division of dark and light shapes, also used to create harmonies, but not as light and shadow. Design and art are valued equally, unlike the academic conception of art. Music is seen as a pure art with corollaries in painting. One of O’Keeffe’s paintings, Music-Pink and Blue No. 1, explores the idea of harmonies evoked by music.

She is also aware of artists like Picasso, Matisse and Cezanne through exposure in New York. Some works seem influenced by Cezanne, like Grey Tree, Lake George, but the essence of Dow’s compositional instruction is to eschew the object, drawing rhythms that lead to a new expression. The original inspiration is just the trigger and representation is not the end goal. O’Keeffe’s work exemplifies this approach, particularly in abstraction.

Flowers were mysterious to O’Keeffe because their parts were too small to see. She resolved to paint them as large compositions. Many flower paintings encourage the misperception of intimate exposure because her formalistic interplay yields folds and openings but her compositional strategy demands that. It’s quite clear from paintings like Jimson Weed-White Flower No. 1 that they are about activating rhythmic lines across the picture plane in evocative harmonies.

After Stieglitz had passed in 1946, O’Keeffe closed the An American Place Gallery and moved to New Mexico where she had two properties. Her interests were drawn from her environment and many landscapes followed. Some dramatic ones are from a location she described as the Black Place. In all these works there is a sense of the ineffable. She is using nature as inspiration but it serves to evoke her notion of “the faraway”.

From the Faraway, Nearby is a skull with antlers set on a landscape. It is not situated within the vista but on the surface in keeping with the Japanese tradition. Objects like pelvic bones become intermediaries to infinity as the sky pours through the orifices.

She produced many abstractions of her patio and doors. These seem to be examples of minimalist compositions but once again, she is following the principles laid down in Dow’s book. The paintings are flat, rhythmic designs that evoke a spatial response. Her work has more in common with Art Nouveau, which was also inspired by Japanese design principles.

Georgia O’Keeffe is a visionary who bursts through the confines of circumscribed reality to offer glimpses into the unknown realms of infinity. In her words: “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing – and keeping the unknown always beyond you.”