“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.” — Georgia O’Keeffe, speaking of her fondness for Ghost Ranch and Northern New Mexico
Some years back, on a trip to Santa Fe I spent a couple of hours in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. I had previously seen her work in other museums, as well as in art books, so the experience in Santa Fe wasn’t my first exposure, but it definitely was an eye-opener. There was something more compelling about seeing her paintings hung on walls only a few dozen miles from where they were painted, and with the same scenery visible from the museum’s windows. We made a trip to Taos to look around, but missed the chance to visit O’Keeffe’s home there, though landscape often prominent in O’Keeffe paintings was everywhere overpowering.
A few nights ago I watched the 2009 made for television movie, Georgia O’Keeffe with Joan Allen as O’Keeffe and the always excellent Jeremy Irons as Alfred Stieglitz. Not a bad picture at all, if a little free with the facts of the artist’s life and relationship with Stieglitz. But anyone will agree that it isn’t easy to telescope a life of ninety-eight years, a relationship of twenty-eight into a compact movie of ninety minutes. For whatever faults it might have, it did receive nine Emmy Award and three Golden Globe nominations. The best of all possible outcomes is that it might spur viewers to pursue the work of O’Keeffe in more detail.
Artist Georgia O’Keeffe was born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, the child of dairy farmers. Interested in art from an early age, her road to full time painting was long. It wasn’t until 1918, at the age of thirty-one that she devoted herself to painting full time. Between 1916 and 1918 O’Keeffe lived and worked in Texas, and while there mailed a batch of her drawings—charcoal on white paper—to a friend in New York who showed the drawings to photographer Alfred Stieglitz, at the time one of American’s leading proponents of modern art. Shortly after receiving O’Keeffe’s drawings, Stieglitz included ten of them in a group show at his well-known gallery. O’Keeffe moved to New York in June 1918 at the invitation of Stieglitz, and they were married in 1924. From mid-1918 until the summer of 1929, the two were inseparable, living and working together during winter and spring in Manhattan, spending summer and fall at the Stieglitz family estate in upstate New York.
O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico briefly in 1917 on vacation and from the first moment felt a special affinity for the landscape. She returned there twelve years later for the first of many summers, and after the death of Stieglitz in 1946 she moved there permanently. The stark, but brightly colored hills and cliffs, the black hills of the Navajo country, the cedar trees of the Ghost Ranch area and the bleached desert bones she collected as she roamed the desert were all inspiration and frequent subjects in her work through the 1940s. O’Keeffe was known as a loner and often went off by herself in the car she purchased to explore the land that infatuated her.
She bought a house at Ghost Ranch in 1940 and another in the village of Abiquiu in 1945. After 1949 she lived summer and fall at Ghost Ranch and winter and spring in Abiquiu. The simple architectural forms of these houses as well as their surrounding landscape are both reflected in her work from the 1940s to the early 1960s.
From her years with Stieglitz and her interest (through Stieglitz) in modernist photography O’Keeffe began doing large–scale painting of flowers, leaves, and trees, close-up views of natural forms, paintings imitative of a camera’s close-up lens. The impression is of the eye or lens piercing the depth of the subject. This style is evident in the 1931 painting Horse’s Skull with White Rose and the 1939 work Pineapple Bud. The pineapple painting was a request of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (Dole) wanting two paintings for use in advertising. Though O’Keeffe spent nine weeks in Hawaii painting the local scenery, it was not until later that she painted the requested pineapple, after the company sent a plant to her New York studio.
A young potter named Juan Hamilton turned up at O’Keeffe’s ranch house in 1973 asking for work. In her mid-eighties at the time and growing frail, she hired the young man to do a few odd jobs, but it soon became full time work. Over the years until her death, Hamilton became her closest companion and confidante, as well as business manager. He taught O’Keeffe to work with clay, and with his assistance she produced clay pots and a series of watercolors.
Increasingly frail in her late 90s, O’Keeffe moved to Santa Fe in 1984. She died there in 1986, at the age of ninety-eight. She was cremated, her ashes scattered in the wind at the top of her beloved Cerro Pedernal near Abiquiu.