Monday, 21 June 2010

Georgia O'Keeffe's landscapes of northern New Mexico

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Pedernal, 1942
Georgia O'Keeffe
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Georgia O'Keeffe's favourite 'place to paint' landscapes was northern New Mexico. My personal view is that her landscapes although less well known are just as worthy of public attention and acclaim as her very famous paintings of flowers.

Once O'Keeffe visited New Mexico she knew she would always return.  She first visited in 1917 and subsequently spent several summers there in the 1930s but only moved there permanently in 1949 after buying a property and the death of her husband, the fanous photographer Alfred Stieglitz.
When Georgia O'Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1917, she was instantly drawn to the stark beauty of its unusual architectural and landscape forms. In 1929, she began spending part of almost every year painting there, first in Taos, and subsequently in and around Alcalde, Abiquiu, and Ghost Ranch, with occasional excursions to remote sites she found particularly compelling. Georgia O'Keeffe and New Mexico is the first book to analyze the artist's famous depictions of these Southwestern landscapes.
Princeton University Press
This is a chronology of her relationship with New Mexico - sourced from a really excellent book about Georgia O'Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Placeby Barbara Buhler Lynes, Lesley Poling-Kempes, Frederick W. Turner.  I've written a review of this book -Book Review: Georgia O'Keeffe and New Mexico which I've posted to Making A Mark Reviews today.

DateGeorgie O'Keeffe in New Mexico
1917Spends several days in Santa Fe, New Mexico
1929 (April-August)Travels to Santa Fe.  Moves to Taos as a guest at the house of Mabel Dodge Luhan who provides O'Keeffe with a studio
1930 (April-August)Stays in New Mexico as guest of Luhan or at H and M Ranch
1934 (June-October)Stays in New Mexico after a nervous breakdown and a long stay in hospital in 1933. 
Visits Ghost Ranch in Rio Arriba County in norther New Mexico for the first time
1935 (July-November)In New Mexico at Ghost Ranch
1936 (June-September)Spends her first summer living at Rancho de los Burros, the house at Ghost ranch which she buys in 1940
Lives there every summer until 1949 when she moves to New Mexico permanently
1937 (July-October)Visits New Mexico
1938 (August-November) Visits New Mexico
1940 (June-November)In New Mexico - buys Rancho de los Burros - a house and 7 acres (part of the Ghost Ranch which is owned and run by a spiritual community)
Meets Maria Chabot in October (who subsequently manages Ghost Ranch and helps organise painting trips)
1941-1945In New Mexico for several months each year
1945 (December)Purchases a ruined hacienda in Abiquiu some 16 miles (26 km) south of Ghost Ranch, which subsequently becomes O'Keeffe's second home and studio in Albiquiu
This is located at County Road 164, House No. 13, Abiquiu, New Mexico
1946In New Mexico (her husband Alfred Steiglitz dies in July 1946)
1947 (August-December)In New Mexico
1948 (April-October)In New Mexico
1949Moves permanently to New Mexico; she splits her time between the property at Ghost ranch and the property in Abiquiu
1971Loses central vision but retains peripheral vision
1984Age 97, moves to Sol y Sombra - a house in Santa Fe
March 6 1986Dies at St Vicent's Hospital, Santa Fe

Her famous reluctance to engage with people other than those she knew well suggests one of the attractions of New Mexico was the scope to be alone and 'away from the madding crowds'.  Descriptions of her behaviour suggest to me somebody who was very much an introvert who was intensely absorbed with working out her own view of the world without distraction.  Put simply, she only needed the subject to paint, she didn't need any people to go with it - and none of her paintings ever include people. 

Another attraction arises from the very diverse geology of the place.  The view from the back of her home at Ghost Ranch alone provided a profile and told the story of rocks layed down over the last 220 million years.  Much of the softer rocks were deeply furrowed and lined from heavy rain and water run-off.  While the harder rocks stuck out - up and above - becoming weathered with age and wind.  In other areas rock has eroded to produce holes between the different strata.

What's fascinating about the book is it shows you photographs of the places she painted in New Mexico alongside the paintings.  Plus it explains the geology and how and why the shapes and colours are so wonderfully different from anywhere else.
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The Red Hills, Grey Sky
Georgia O'Keeffe
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The changing light on the rich colours of the hills and cliffs provided an unending range of possibilities to paint.   To me she seems to have constantly simplified and abstracted what she saw without departing from the overall shape and form.  She also heightened the colours but stayed true to their hues.
Badlands roll away from my door, hill after hill - red hills of apparently the same earth that you mix with oil to make paint...  All the earth colours of the painter;'s palette are set out there in the many miles of badlands.  The light naples yellow through the ochres - orange and red and purple earth - even the soft earth greens.
Georgia O'Keeffe 1935 (page 31 op cit)
I think one of the aspects which most attracted her was the scope to be inventive her palette and to explore the relationships between colours as well as forms.
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Blue River
Georgia O'Keeffe
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Her favourite places (and motifs) included:
  • Pedernal - the flat topped moutain to the south of the Ranch
  • Black Mesa
  • Red Hills - see the above painting The Red Hills, Grey Sky
  • Lavendar Hills to the east
  • Purple Hills - a mesa near ghost ranch which darkened in the rain
  • the Chama River - see the above painting Blue River
  • Black Place: She developed an intense interest in what is called the "Black Place" 150 miles west of Ghost Ranch, northeast of Youngsville between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico in northern New Mexico, which she photographed with Eliot Porter in 1948, 1953, 1959, and 1977. O'Keeffe said that the Black Place resembles "a mile of elephants with gray hills and white sand at their feet."
  • White Place: the enromous white cliffs in the Plaza Colorado a land grant north of Abiquiu.  This white rock formation located near her Ghost Ranch. In 1977, O'Keeffe said that the "cliffs over there are almost painted for you -- you think -- until you try to paint them."
Knowledgeable visitors can look around and identify many of the scenes she painted. Red and gray hills like those across from the roadside park south of the ranch headquarters were frequent subjects. Kitchen Mesa at the upper end of the valley is an example of the red and yellow cliffs she painted many times. Pedernal, the flat-topped mountain to the south, was probably her favorite subject. "It's my private mountain," she frequently said. "God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it."
Georgia O'Keeffe and the Ghost Ranch Landscape Tour
When she died in March 1986, her instructions were that she should be cremated the next day and then her ashes should be scattered to the winds from the top of the Pedernal Mountain, over her beloved "faraway".

She owned two homes because Ghost Ranch was a summer place and she needed somewhere for the winter as well.  The Ghost Ranch house is not open to the public.  However, for those like me who love visiting the homes and studios of artists, tours of the Abiquiu house are available on a limited basis and by appointment.  There is also a Georgia O'Keeffe and the Ghost Ranch Landscape Tour

I RECOMMEND you take a look a

No place made as big an impression on O’Keeffe as New Mexico did. In early summer 1929, O’Keeffe traveled from New York to northern New Mexico, having first seen the area in 1917, when she returned to Texas from a vacation in Colorado. As she later explained: “When I got to New Mexico that was mine. As soon as I saw it that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. It’s something that’s in the air, it’s different. The sky is different, the wind is different. I shouldn’t say too much about it because other people may be interested and I don’t want them interested.” (In Perry Miller Adato, Georgia O’Keeffe, film.)
Georgia O'Keeffe Museum - Landscapes slideshow
This post can only give you a hint of the place and O'Keeffe's long-lasting fascination with the badlands of northern New Mexico.  If you'd like to know more about Georgia O'Keeffe and her landscape paintings (and her other paintings) can I suggest you either buy the book or consult my information site Georgia O'Keeffe - Resources for Art Lovers which contains all the links I can find to information about her life, her art, her homes and sources of further information about all aspects of her life.

Note:  O'Keeffe died in 1986 and her estate retains copyright of her work so I'm using reproductions of her work as images in this post.  I have an affiliate relationship with


Casey Klahn said...

So stunning and powerful.

Her centralized compositions fascinate me - they work so well. I wish I had the historical faculty to be sure, but it reminds me of other elements of paintings from her time. I saw original oils in Italy that posted the buildings right in the center like that, and it is a good working trick for elevating the importance of the object. Also, the way she fills the page with her object - how is she so effective at that?

Great posts, Katherine.

Making A Mark said...

I think the thing about O'Keeffe is she makes the complex look simple.

I've got a feeling you have to study the colour combinations to work out why a particular composition works as well as it does. You sit there thinking it's all about form and actually it's all about form and hue and value - in other words the almighty trinity strikes again!

Nell Shaw Cohen said...

Thanks for this post on a wonderfully captivating topic! Last summer I tracked down many of the sites in New Mexico that she painted, and created a multimedia video/music piece about O'Keeffe's vision of the landscape. "A Sense of Place" was a very helpful resource in this undertaking, and I actually consulted with the author Barbara Buhler-Lynes for my project. The 10-minute video is viewable online at <a href="></a> - I would love to hear what you think of it.

Making A Mark said...

Many thanks Nell - that's a wonderful film. You are very talented.

It kept making me think I was seeing the paintings rather than the geology and landscape. I can now much better appreciate why O'Keeffe never wanted to leave the place.

I'm going to feature the film on this blog and will then provide a link to it in this blog post.

Robin Purcell said...

This makes me want to go to the museum so badly! I've always thought here oils look like watercolors with their clear bright color and yes, it's all about color value and form!