The Houses of Georgia O’Keeffe
Posted on April 1, 2016
“Well! Well! Well! This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this!” – Upon arriving in New Mexico
Finding her way to Northern New Mexico was not an escape from the bustle of New York, but a rediscovery of the wide open spaces that had first inspired her abstract watercolors that captured the vastness of West Texas with its broad, open skies over the plains in Canyon, Texas contrasting against the dramatic landscape of the nearby Palo Duro Canyon. It was here that she first revealed her fascination with abstraction as a means of expression, while heading the art department at West Texas State Normal College.
After excursions to New Mexico during the summers in the early 30’s, she would trade the shadowy canyons of the growing metropolis in New York for the vibrant colors that marked the walls nearby cliffs and distant mountain views that framed the boundaries of Ghost Ranch, a dude ranch located twenty miles north of the village of Abiquiu . The poignant beauty of this high dessert setting would become the inspiration of here work for years to come, providing the perfect foil to her creative yearnings and provide a setting that would become her home. Here the red rock cliffs rise up from the pinons and cottonwoods, where outcroppings stand jagged against the cerulean blue of the of the New Mexico sky where the clouds reflect the landscape below in their own composition.
Her summer place at Ghost Ranch was known as Rancho de los Burros, the former home of Arthur Pack – who had run the dude ranch. This simple, austere U- shaped adobe structure became her studio and would itself provide the framework for many of her paintings. With windows looking out at inspiration in every direction, from simple views across sage dotting he desert plains, to the corner windows at the breakfast room gazing upon the cliff walls that provided the vision for red and Yellow Cliffs – an early painting dating from 1940. Its outward focus was echoed in her work while its interior was reflective of a woman whose life was stripped of pretense and was focused on joy of simple living and finding beauty in the ordinary.
Nothing would affect her passion for this landscape more that than the Cerro Pedernal, a narrow mesa that translates at “flint hill”. Its presence dominates the horizon, it flat peak reaching up to the clouds. She felt a spiritual connection with this mountain, and this constant in the landscape became a feature that was repeated throughout many of her works.
“It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I paint it enough, I could have it”, she would joke later in her life.
The house was not her only home in this wilderness, though – she would often drive out into the desert to find her inspiration, camping and painting from the mobile studio of her Model A Ford.
“She would remove the driver’s seat. Then she would unbolt the passenger car, turn it around to face the back seat. Then she would lay the canvas on the back seat as an easel and paint inside her Model-A Ford.” The car would also provide a respite from the harsh elements and unrelenting desert sun. A favorite of her excursion, “the Black Place” is a stretch of hill and arroyos – black, silver and grey on the landscape, located in the Bisti Badlands in Navajo Country north of Ghost Ranch. Her assistant Maria Chabot described it as “… the black hills-black and grey and silver with arroyos of white sand curving around them-pink and white strata running through them. They flow downward, one below the next. Incredible stillness!”
The desert would also provide another element whose abstractions would motivate her artistic explorations – the bleached bones.
“When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too…. I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it”
“To me they are as beautiful as anything I know … they are strangely more living than the animals walking around…. The bones seem to cut sharply to the center of something that is keenly alive on the desert even tho’ it is vast and empty and untouchable—and knows no kindness with all its beauty”
Always wanting to have a bit more land, enough for a horse and a garden, she began to look for a true place of her own, the Ghost ranch was really just a summer place, and in 1945 she purchased a small adobe structure that not much more than a ruin and spent the next four years restoring and adding to it. This also allowed her view that related both to the landscape and to the home, allowing her to paint from the studio in winter months. She would also often paint from her bedroom, a former wagon shed with a simple corner fireplace, overlooking the Chama River valley or her patio – a sunlit interior court. This court would become a recurring image with in her body of work, studied as light and shadow tracked across the space from season to season.
“That wall with a door in it was something I had to have. It took me ten years to get it- three more years to fix the house so I could live in it- and after that the wall with a door was painted many times.”
The house was a place, simple in form and detail, but as composed as her art. Everything had a meaningful aesthetic place. The studio, once a windowless room that served as a cattle pen, now opens out to the broad vistas of the surrounding New Mexico landscape. The sitting room’s door opens to the patio, itself becoming the subject of one of her abstract studies of that space. The Roofless Room, an open air space with a ceiling of log beams and vigas, allows light to filter though –shadow playing against the plaster walls and dirt floor.
The patio was also the portal to escape to the sky, four walls of earthen materials framing the expanse of the heavens, day or night. She would often climb to the roof and sleep both in Abiquiu and at the Ghost Ranch.
As I see the way that she found a new modern interpretation of beauty in the contradictory subtleness and drama of the New Mexico landscape, it was by immersing herself there in these homes that she found both her exuberant creativity, as well as inner joy and peace. I am reminded of the thoughts of another great lover of the landscape of this area, J. B. Jackson whose writing brought perspective to our understanding of the vernacular landscape.
“The older I grow and the longer I look at landscapes and seek to understand them, the more convinced I am that their beauty is not simply an aspect but their very essence and that that beauty derives from the human presence” – J B Jackson – Landscape in Sight: Looking at America