A passion for desert landscapes is something I have in common with the great American painter, Georgia O’Keeffe. We also share a love of the Big Apple.
Georgia O’Keeffe is one of my favourite artists, an inspirational woman far ahead of her time. Two places inspired her greatest works – New Mexico and New York – and both feature heavily in the Tate Modern’s new Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition.
Marking the 100th anniversary of O’Keeffe’s New York debut show, the retrospective presents over 100 of the artist’s works from six decades of her career. This exhibition provides a rare chance to see the artist’s paintings outside the USA as there are no works by O’Keeffe in public collections in the UK.
I went along in search of O’Keeffe’s love of landscapes and fell in love with her art once again. This is definitely one of the best art shows in London this year.
New York Skylines
I was surprised to learn that Georgia O’Keeffe was born in Wisconsin, but New York was where she first made her mark as an artist in 1916 at a group show at the 291 Gallery.
She made a big impact in the Big Apple and continued working in the city under the watchful eye of photographer and art dealer, Alfred Stieglitz, later to become her husband.
I love her paintings of the city especially this evocative New York street scene captured just as the moon is dipping behind evening clouds. It’s almost abstract with its bold lines and blocks of colour.
Georgia O’Keeffe became an important member of New York’s avant-garde which included painters and photographers like John Marin, Charles Demuth, Paul Strand and Edward Steichen.
Painting New York was a huge challenge for her. “I was told it was an impossible idea,” she said, “even the men hadn’t done too well with it”. But O’Keeffe was to prove it could be done better by a woman.
She went on to paint sensational cityscapes of New York from street level and from the elevated vantage point of her 30th floor room at the Shelton Hotel. Talk about the advantages of high-rise living!
During her time in the Big Apple, O’Keeffe travelled to Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York where the Stieglitz family owned a summer home.
The property, a converted farm, was located on the western shore of what Americans call “the Queen of American lakes.” O’Keeffe used to stay at Lake George from spring to autumn, enjoying long country walks and hikes up to Prospect Mountain.
There’s something simple but refined about her paintings of the barns, cottages and hillside scenery at Lake George. I hadn’t encountered this new side to O’Keeffe’s work before.
Lake George inspired her to paint works with softer hues of blue and green from nature whilst her paintings of apples, leaves and trees burst with autumn colours – warm reds, oranges and russet hues.
New Mexico’s landscapes
“When I got to New Mexico, that was mine. As soon as I saw that it was my country, I’d never seen anything like it before. The sky is different, the wind is different…” Georgia O’Keeffe.
O’Keeffe is best known for her paintings of New Mexico where she lived for many years. After the Great Depression in 1929, O’Keeffe felt that New York’s positive spirit and dynamism was on the wane, and looked for new inspiration.
In 1929, she made her first extended visit to New Mexico, taking the train to Santa Fe with her friend Rebecca Strand. After a short time, she ended up living and working in a house owned by art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan in Taos, a town renowned for its native American culture and ancient pueblos.
I can understand why she was inspired by this place. New Mexico boasts stunning scenery from rocky canyons and desert plains to red rock mountains and plateaux. This self-proclaimed ‘Land of Enchantment’ is rich with Native American and Spanish culture so it’s no surprise that it’s a magnet for artists.
During her time in Taos, O’Keeffe embarked on a series of adventures, taking pack trips to explore the mountains and deserts and collect rocks and bones from the desert floor.
O’Keeffe explored New Mexico’s desert landscapes in her Ford Model A car and it must have been quite a sight to see a lone bohemian woman driving around alone in 1929.
She also went on rafting trips down the Colorado River and travelled to Glen Canyon in neighbouring Utah. Even in her later years, O’Keeffe was a keen hiker and walked for miles.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings capture the essence of New Mexico because she felt at one with the landscape. She wanted to capture what she described as “the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it”. For her, New Mexico symbolised the great American wilderness or ‘the Faraway’ as she called it.
Sometimes O’Keeffe travelled with her photographer friend Ansel Adams, famous for his images of the American landscape. He took some fantastic photographs of O’Keeffe which are featured in the Tate Modern exhibition. Looking at them, you can feel Georgia O’Keeffe’s deep passion for the New Mexico landscape.
The Ghost Ranch
“I wish you could see what I see out the windows – the earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north – the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky behind a very long beautiful tree-covered mesa to the west – pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull cedars – and a feeling of much space. It is a very beautiful world” – Georgia O’Keeffe.
Georgia O’Keeffe adored New Mexico and one of her favourite places was the Ghost Ranch near Abiquiu which she made her home in 1940. The multi-coloured cliffs near this ‘dude ranch’ inspired some of her most famous landscapes.
She had a passion for this “beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place” and its inspirational wilderness quality.
Today, the ranch is a retreat and education centre where you can take part in art and spiritual workshops run by the Presbyterian Church. It’s a good place for an artistic break, but veers slightly too far on the religious side for my tastes.
Alternatively, you can stride in Georgia O’Keeffe’s footsteps on a walking and landscape tour or take the horseback trail to the areas where the artist found her inspiration.
The Ghost Ranch lies in the heart of an area of outstanding natural beauty, surrounded by multicolored canyons and cliffs, plains, grasslands and streams.
Fans of Georgia O’Keeffe can enjoy playing ‘spot the painting’ when exploring the landscapes around the Ranch. The views from her own backyard were popular subjects for the artist including the red and grey hills close to the ranch.
Another of O’Keeffe’s favorite places was Pedernal which she could see from her house in Abiquiu. I wish that I had such a great view from my living room!
She described this flat-topped mountain as “my private mountain”, adding “God told me if I painted it often enough I could have it.”
The Pedernal is featured in one of my favourite pictures in the Tate Modern – the painting depicts a giant sun and cool blue desert landscape. Looming over the landscape of the Chama river valley, Pedernal lies at the westernmost part of the volcanic Jémez Mountains. Georgia O’Keeffe loved it so much that her ashes are scattered there.
Rivers were another common subject for O’Keeffe and feature in her ‘river series’ painted during her later career. You can see the influence of native American art in these works.
A personal favourite is “From the River – Pale” which provides a glorious aerial view of a river which plays on the abstract qualities of shape and colour in the landscape, making the waterway look like a lightning strike. The river has a wonderful sinuous and flowing quality.
It was inspired by air travel when Georgia O’Keeffe was able to look down on the landscape from a plane and discover patterns she’d never seen before. The golden colours leap off the canvas with a poetic quality. It reminded me of my own holiday trip to the Chama River with its distinctive arid landscape.
“I saw the crosses so often—and often in unexpected places—like a thin dark veil of the Catholic Church spread over the New Mexico landscape” – Georgia O’Keeffe
The architecture of New Mexico was a huge influence on O’Keeffe’s paintings, especially the adobe-style buildings and large crosses on hillsides.
It was on her late-night walks in the desert that she spotted the famous crosses erected near remote chapels by secret Catholic lay brotherhoods called Penitentes.
She depicts them in a bold abstract way, emphasising their shapes to reveal their inner beauty. For O’Keeffe, “painting the crosses was a way of painting the country, ”symbolising New Mexico and what the Spanish felt about Catholicism. They are dark, sombre and mysterious.
I love the sheer power of ‘Black Cross with Stars and Blue’, one of O’Keeffe’s earliest New Mexico works which features the silhouette of a cross on a starry night. For me, it evokes the spirit of Van Gogh’s ‘The Starry Night’.
New Mexico is famous for its adobe architecture, Puebloan dwellings and mission churches. The town of Taos was one of O’Keeffe’s favourite places with its distinctive architecture, illustrated by the “Ranchos Church” painting in the Tate Modern exhibition.
O’Keeffe makes the church look like a series of rocky boulders rising out of the ground, reducing the building to bold, abstract shapes, blurring the boundary between earth and architecture.
“Nobody sees a flower really – it is so small – we have no time. So I said to myself, I’ll paint what I see… but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it”
O’Keeffe is perhaps most famous for her magnified flower paintings which feature prominently in the Tate show. She started making them in the 1920s and they display an almost photographic style of realism.
These are some of my favourite paintings in the Tate exhibition and, judging by the crowds jostling to get the best views, they’re popular with everyone else too.
Georgia O’Keeffe regretted that people don’t have time to look at something as small as a flower. She wanted even a busy New Yorker take the time to examine them in all their beauty… and boy does she succeed in her paintings.
Her giant ‘Oriental Poppies’ are simply gorgeous with their sumptuous red and orange petals contrasting with the black centres of the flowers. They’ve been enlarged to a huge size to magnify the intensity of their colours. And yes, we do look and stare!
O’Keeffe’s best known flower painting is “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1” which holds the record for the most expensive painting by a female artist sold at auction. It sold for a cool $44.4 million at Sotheby’s in 2014. It has also been a huge hit with the Tate Modern crowds.
It’s a remarkably striking painting which cannot fail to hold your attention, a true blockbuster with its luminous white petals and decorative background.
It’s strange but the flower is actually a weed which grows wild in New Mexico, blooming at night and wilting during the day. Close-up the blooms in the painting are so realistic that they are almost like a photograph.
This move to greater realism was deliberate on behalf of O’Keeffe who grew tired of her more abstract flower paintings being compared to sexualised parts of the female anatomy. Her earlier “White Irises” painting (below) was one of the works which attracted much old-fashioned sexism from male art critics.
I was shocked to learn that O’Keeffe said she hated flowers, and claimed that she painted them “because they’re cheaper than models and they don’t move”. It’s hard to believe that anyone who painted flowers with such intense beauty could have believed that, but O’Keeffe was very much her own woman.
O’Keeffe was attracted to objects she found in the desert including animal bones and skulls from cows, elk and horses. She was fascinated by their shapes and textures. There’s a brilliant example of these works in the Tate Modern show including a painting of an elk skull called ‘From the Faraway, Nearby’, painted in a very realistic style.
Personally, I prefer her abstract landscapes which possess a real purity with their brilliant, vibrant colours. “Music – Pink and Blue” is one of the most striking with its contrasting pinks, whites and blues. Her experiments in colour are almost like those of Kandinsky.
For O’Keeffe, painting was like music and there was no better place than a desert landscape to capture this. It was here that she was able to let her imagination run riot, discovering the immense skies, arid landscapes and shifting sands.
Up Close and Personal
Being a female artist proved to be an albatross around O’Keeffe’s neck for much of her career. One of the most controversial galleries in the Tate show focuses on nude photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe made during her early years in New York by her husband, Alfred Stieglitz.
He made more than 350 portraits of O’Keeffe including erotic images from the early 1920s. Today, it’s uncomfortable looking at them, not least because O’Keeffe wanted to be remembered for her own art and not as a sexual object. This view of O’Keeffe impacted adversely on her own work which was often eroticised, especially her flowers.
Although undoubtedly beautiful images, there’s a fine line between art and objectification. O’Keeffe would later write, “When I look over the photographs Stieglitz took of me, some of them more than 60 years ago, I wonder who that person is.”
The exhibition looks at these tricky feminist issues and tries to unpackage them, if not wholly successfully. Why not make up your own mind?
‘The Mother of American Modernism’
Georgia O’Keeffe died in Santa Fe in 1986 at the ripe old age of 98. Her legacy was as a trailblazing artist, an American art icon and a pioneer of 20th Century modernism.
Creating innovative art, including her distinctive flowers, dramatic cityscapes and bold desert scenes, she blazed a trail for fellow artists.
O’Keeffe once mused on being a woman artist – “The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters”. She was indeed just that.
Georgia O’Keeffe was never locked into one artistic movement but took her own path. She was a one-off.
Take her journey through America’s great landscapes and you won’t be disappointed.
Tammy’s Top Tips – New Mexico and Georgia O’Keeffe
The Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition runs 6 July -30 October 2016 at Tate Modern in London. Tate Modern is located on London’s Southbank.
If you’re travelling to New Mexico, there are many fascinating O’Keeffe sites including the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe which boasts an excellent collection of the artist’s work. Sante Fe is a great base for exploring the state.
The O’Keeffe Museum also organises tours of one of O’Keeffe’s houses and studio in Abiquiu. The tour times vary, scuppering my visit back in 2007, so check opening hours. Special tours take place between June and early November on Thursdays at 10:00 and 13:00.
One of my favourite places in New Mexico is White Sands National Monument – its luminous gypsum dunes remind me of a late O’Keeffe painting in the Tate Modern exhibition called ‘Sky with Flat Cloud’ which is one of her most abstract, colour-field style works.
Visit other locations associated with Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico with this great guide.
The Ghost Ranch is about 15 miles north of Abiquiu – you can sign up for one of several guided tours highlighting sites that Georgia O’Keeffe painted, or explore the area on your own.
The White Place, beloved of Georgia O’Keeffe, offers white cliffs, castles, spires, and hoodoos. It is privately owned by the Dar al Islam Mosque, but hiking trips are possible.
Watch the Tate Modern’s 360 film of New Mexican landscapes which inspired Georgia O’Keeffe.