My daughter has been visiting us the last several days in connection with her Amazon conference in Albuquerque. Since we moved to Santa Fe from Kentucky last July, she’s been curious to see what drew us here, so we’ve been showing her Santa Fe, “the city different,” and nearby vistas like Bandelier National Monument with its splendid canyons and Pueblo artifacts.
Saturday, we took in the local Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, truly a best buy even at $13 a ticket, housing a generous number of her paintings, so many in fact, that the museum rotates their display. Founded in 1997, the museum lures many visitors, heedless of the calendar, and includes videos and lectures reviewing her life and artistry. It also serves as a major research center of modernist American art.
While a deservedly famous artist, initiates may find O’Keeffe often beyond reach since much of her work is abstract. As she tellingly phrased it, “I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at—not copy it.”
O’Keeffe’s considerable achievement—more than 2000 paintings— can understandably overwhelm. The consummate artist, it seems she devoted nearly every waking hour to her art, mastering many sub-genres, i.e., oil, charcoal, water color, and even with these, ever evolving.
Though I came to know her like many others as a landscape painter, flowers were a favorite subject and she would return to floral themes throughout her life. In all her art, whether of flowers, architecture, or rock formations, she concerned herself with extracting the minutiae hidden to most of us:
When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else. Most people in the city rush around so, they have no time to look at a flower. I want them to see it whether they want to or not.
While not professing any creed, an essentially spiritual essence endows her canvas reminiscent of her beloved Goya, a sense of fusion between self and landscape, the ephemeral tempered by infinity, the primacy of sentiment over reason.
Unfortunately, as she aged, her vision progressively deteriorated as a result of macro-degeneration, ultimately reducing her to peripheral vision and compelling her to seek help in mixing colors. When the time came that she couldn’t paint, she turned to clay sculpturing, molding what she could know longer fully see.
On Sunday we took the ninety minute road trip to Ghost Ranch, where she spent her springs and summers painting just maybe New Mexico’s most exquisite red rock mesas:
Such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the ‘Faraway’. It is a place I have painted before … even now I must do it again.
Ghost Ranch, locale for a number of Hollywood films and now a Presbyterian USA retreat center, tumbles across 21,000 acres. It had been formerly a dude ranch hosting the wealthy. O’Keeffe purchased twelve acres of it in 1940, now off limits to visitors.
You can, however, see her winter residence, owned by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, fifteen miles down the road in nearby Abiquiu. A designated historical site, O’Keeffe purchased the dilapidated 5000 foot colonial Spanish compound in 1945 and devoted three years to lovingly restoring it.
Her principal residence and studio, she lived here for 39 years, often painting from inside her bedroom window looking out on the Chama River valley.
As an adjunct to your visit, I’d highly recommend Lynes and Lopez’ fulsome Georgia O’Keeffe and Her Houses: Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. The tour lasts about an hour, costs $40, and includes her large garden. Yes, she excelled at this as well! It’s a tour Karen and I await eagerly.
O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1929 at the insistence of Taos art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan and, like so many other artists, fell in love with its stark landscape and ubiquitous solitude offering space from the constraints and snobbery of the New York artisan community to paint freely, returning seasonally for twenty years before making the state her permanent home in 1949 three years after the death of her husband, the renowned photographer and art connoisseur, Alfred Stieglitz.
She died on March 6, 1986 at age 98 in Santa Fe’s St. Vincent Hospital, her ashes scattered at her request on the top of Pedernal Mountain, a beloved vista she viewed daily at Ghost Ranch and frequent subject.
On our way back to Santa Fe, we took lunch at the charming Abiquiú Inn. A few steps away, you’ll find the recently opened O’Keeffe Welcome Center with its helpful staff, where you can book your tour and purchase O’Keeffe mementos.