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Living and Writing in the Natural World

The Southwest 2: Georgia O'Keeffe's Land

The Georgia O'Keefe Cottage after overnight snow

After following the Chama River several miles, Al and I turned the rental car off Hwy 84 northwest of Santa Fe at dusk and drove into the canyon where Ghost Ranch is located. The ranch is now a 21,000-acre workshop center. Though not enrolled in a class, we had obtained lodging there, and were directed to one of a cluster of rooms not 50 yards from the “Georgia O’Keeffe cottage,” the principal bungalow where the artist spent the last 50 summers of her life. Some ten miles to the south the distinctive flat-topped mesa Cerro Pedernal loomed in the dying light, immortalized in so many of O’Keeffe’s paintings, as was the Chama River also.

The evening was cold, so we stumbled into the dining room across the dirt road and pirated cups of cocoa. It had been a long day, what with the Coronado Historic Site, Santa Fe, and Chimayo, and we were asleep in our rustic quarters not long after dark.

We arose the next morning to a land blanketed with several inches of overnight snow, with the sun shining strong in a cleft within the high cliffs forming the east edge of the canyon. Al grabbed his camera and spent the hour before breakfast recording the enchantment. I trudged through the snow to O’Keeffe’s nearby bungalow, where I stood in the sunshine paying my respects to the founder of American Modernist painting and her astonishing body of work.

New Mexico had grabbed O’Keeffe’s attention passing through it in 1917, but she spent the next decade as the lover then the wife of prominent photographer Alfred Stieglitz in New York City, where the public (and the art critics) were captivated by her bold Modernistic interpretation of the hills and plants at the Stieglitz summer retreat at Lake George. When she and Steiglitz moved to the penthouse of one of New York City’s first skyscrapers, she painted her views of the city from the heights, then the skyscrapers themselves, particularly in night settings. Again, she captured the interest and admiration of all. By the time she compelled the busy New Yorkers to notice the sensuous lines and colors of flowers in giant paintings of them, O’Keeffe had achieved critical acclaim in three genres--and financial independence, unprecedented for a female artist of her time.

But the memory of New Mexico’s stark landscape tugged at her. In the summer of 1929 she returned with a friend, and stayed at the sprawling adobe compound of Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, north of Santa Fe. Luhan was a fabulously wealthy patron of the arts, who had entertained Pablo Picasso, Arthur Rubinstein, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and Andre Gide at her Medici palace outside Florence, and Steiglitz, John Reed, Emma Goldman, and Lincoln Steffers in her Fifth Avenue apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village.

At her Taos residence Luhan welcomed Willa Cather, Mary Hunter Austin, Robinson and Una Jeffers, and D.H. Lawrence among many. When O’Keeffe arrived, she was provided her own studio, and mingled with current guests, who included a young photographer named Ansel Adams, and D.H. Lawrence’s widow, Frieda. O’Keeffe purchased a black Model A Ford she named “Hello”, and despite never having driven before she ventured daily into the rugged landscape with Adams and Frieda.

Soon the Model A was customized to permit O’Keeffe to sit on the back seat and mount her easel on the front, where she painted through long days. At night she would sleep under a massive pine tree, one of Frieda’s favorites, featured in her arresting ground-up view of The Lawrence Tree.

So enchanted was O’Keeffe with the New Mexico landscape that she spent the next two summers into the early fall months there. Her annual post-Christmas exhibits arranged by Stieglitz incorporated her new paintings, which once again won over the public and art critics. But her frequent absences and her maturing years cost her dearly; Stieglitz developed an intense relationship with an attractive young patron of his gallery. O’Keeffe was devastated, and spent the spring months of 1933 in a psychiatric hospital. She wandered in a haze the rest of the year, unable to paint, barely able to function.

But the inner resources of this remarkable woman rallied. As she wrote to a friend in January of 1934: “I seem to have come out of my daze into another world—feeling very good—as though there is nothing the matter with me any more.” And she returned to New Mexico and began painting again. She finally discovered Ghost Ranch that summer, an hour northwest of Santa Fe, and immediately knew that it was her home.

“It’s the most wonderful place you can imagine,” O’Keeffe related to a journalist. “It’s so beautiful there. It’s ridiculous. In front of my house there are low scrub bushes and cottonwood trees and, further out, a line of hills. And then I have this mountain. A flat top mountain that slopes off on each side. A blue mountain. And to the left you can see snow covered mountains, far, far away.” Her paintings began to focus on skulls she’d find on desert rambles, and the creamy (poisonous) flowers of Jimson Weed. Of her painting Ram’s Head with White Hollyhock, the New Yorker art critic Lewis Mumford wrote “In conception and execution, this is one of the most brilliant paintings O’Keeffe has done.”

O’Keeffe began a routine of spring through fall in New Mexico, and winters in New York City, where Stieglitz continued as her artistic promoter, friend, and husband-in-name despite his wandering ways. Her popularity with the public and the critics continued unabated. At one time, an expatriate American living in France offered to buy six of her small Calla Lily panels painted in 1923. Stieglitz distrusted the buyer, and named the outrageous price of $25,000 for the pieces, equivalent today of a quarter-million dollars. The buyer promptly agreed.

The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan mounted a show of O’Keeffe’s life work in 1946, their first ever for a female artist; she flew from New Mexico in May to attend its gala opening. When Stieglitz’s heart faltered two months later, she returned promptly and was at his bedside as he died. She buried his ashes at Lake George, and as his wife and executor of his estate, O’Keeffe spent the next two years settling his affairs, distributing his 850 art works and photographs to various museums and institutions. Finally in 1948 she returned to her beloved Ghost Ranch and never returned to New York City.

Because Ghost Ranch in those years lacked electricity and telephone service, O’Keeffe in 1945 had purchased a ruined adobe hacienda in the nearby hamlet of Abiquiu. Thereafter she spent summers at Ghost Ranch and winters in Abiquiu. From mid-century on she was the iconic American painter, featured on magazine covers and countless interviews. When asked her about her painting career, she replied, “I’ve never thought of myself as having a great gift...It isn’t just talent. You have to have something else. You have to have a kind of nerve. It’s mostly a lot of nerve, and a lot of very, very hard work.”

“A lot of nerve.” I thought of that as I stood in the snow before her cottage at Ghost Ranch that morning, small cottonwoods framing it. She was born in an age when women in general and women painters particularly were second-class people. Slim through strong, she had stormed the citadel of patriarchy in New York City and by sheer nerve challenged the power structure to see the world as she saw it—leaves, skyscrapers, flowers, ram skulls. And she had won them over, with her talent, her hard work—and her sheer nerve. She had to be strong, to dare so much. For me, O’Keeffe is the archetypal modern emancipated woman, one whose strength was drawn from the earth itself. She was speaking to all of us when she wrote a friend in 1932: “Give my greetings to the sky and the mountains and the sun and the wind.”

As she entered her ninth decade of life, O’Keeffe was asked about death. “When I think of death, I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country any more, unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I’m gone.” I don’t know about spirits, but I do know that standing there that morning with the high cliffs to the east and Cerro Pedernal to the south, O’Keeffe had opened my eyes to the glory and grandeur of sky, mountains, sun, and wind in New Mexico—and the world. Though she died in 1986 at age 98, she continues to teach us all.

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