For my birthday Penelope gave me 24 hours in O'Keeffe country which included a landscape tour at Ghost Ranch, a tour of her home and studio in Abiquiu with O'Keefe's secretary and an overnight at the Abiquiu Inn.
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986) visited New Mexico for the first time in 1917 and then again in 1929 and 1930. She spent her first summer at Ghost Ranch in 1934 and was finally able to buy her own home there in 1940. Ghost Ranch seems to have been the most inspiring place for her and she probably did more paintings of the landscape there than any place else she lived.
The tour we took was based on the 2004 exhibition organized by the George O’Keeffe Museum, “Sense of Place”. The concept of the show was to compare the artist’s paintings with the actual landscape.
In order to understand an artist and what they are painting one needs to go to the places where they were working. For instance in Italian painting the light is strong and direct while in Dutch painting the skies are usually darker and more atmospheric.
In O'Keeffe country the bright direct light, the barrenness of the land and the rock formations, the spots of green and tufts of clouds are today as they were when she was working there. Even though she used varying degrees of abstraction, she managed to transmit the feeling of the land in her art. She referred to Ghost Ranch as “the far away, nearby”, a perfect description. Actually, I often feel that concept goes for much of the Southwest.
Her second New Mexico home was in Abiquiu, 14 miles south of Ghost Ranch. She had coveted a house she passed often on her way to Ghost Ranch and was finally able to buy it in 1945. After years of neglect the house needed a lot of work and there was the perfect opportunity when she had to return to New York to settle her husband, Alfred Stieglitz’s, estate in 1946. She left her companion Maria Chabot to manage the rebuilding.
The interior is rather stark in it’s minimalist style. Light came from bare bulbs in ceiling sockets or hanging down on wires. The only covered ceiling fixtures were Akari paper lamps, a gift from Isamu Noguchi who had been invited to dinner but did not show up! They were hung in the dining room. Her work and dining tables were made of plywood. Her rock collection covers most of the flat surfaces particularly on the window sills. The warmth comes from the gardens, the original adobe undulating walls 16 to 18 inches thick, and, most of all, from the beautiful scenery which seeps in from the many large windows.
Penelope had arranged for Agapita Judy Lopez, known at Pita, to give us the tour of the house. She had come to work there in 1976, first as companion and later as secretary to Ms. O’Keeffe. Her grandfather had been the gardener and her mother the cook, so Pita became part of the “O’Keeffe family”. I had taken a group tour of the Abiquiu house some years ago and the difference doing it with Pita was not the facts, which were obviously the same, but the personal stories. O’Keeffe by any measure was not the easiest of people to deal with, so when Pita started out and had questions she did not bother the artist, instead she would call her mother!
O’Keeffe managed her image but had difficulty relating to people on a personal basis. She was known as reclusive in Santa Fe circles, but she expressed the wish to have her home be open to the public when she was gone. When Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico wanted to make it a Federal site open to the public, she was told that the doors would have to be widened under the Disabled Persons Act and other modifications would have to be made. As Pita told us “Miss O’Keeffe said “’That is not my home!’” and stopped Domenici from carrying through. The house is today part of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.
The world of Georgia O’Keeffe and her paintings have a mesmerizing effect and once you have seen O’Keeffe country it is impossible to separate the two.