Where O'Keeffe Bloomed
Art can die of overfamiliarity. Think of Leonardo's Mona Lisa, or Pachelbel's "Canon," works seen or heard so often that their vital strangeness and originality seem all but lost. Or more on native ground, think of Georgia O'Keeffe's flowers and cattle skulls, images that have been "posterized" to the point of near invisibility.
Among the rewards of traveling to one of the more austerely enchanting places in the United States--a stretch of land in northern New Mexico extending up the Chama River valley from the bluff-perched hamlet of Abiquiu to the nearby 21,000-acre Ghost Ranch--is to recover a sense of the flinty originality of an artist whose deepest creative instincts resonated with this high-desert landscape. That rediscovery can even provide a light thematic backdrop to the traveler's own quest for renewal and re-creation, opportunities for which abound in this valley whose wide basin the Spanish dubbed Piedra Lumbre, or Shining Stone.
Many years after her first visit to New Mexico in 1917, O'Keeffe wrote that she was "always on my way back." And recalling her maiden journey to the Abiquiu area in 1931, she talked about the shapes of the hills and said that she had "never had a better time painting." During the '30s and '40s, as O'Keeffe's marriage with photographer and New York art impresario Alfred Stieglitz teetered precariously, she began spending longer stretches in New Mexico, often using her car as her studio. Renting and then buying a house on the Ghost Ranch from publisher Arthur Pack, she went on to purchase and remodel a sprawling 18th-century adobe hacienda in Abiquiu. In 1949, three years after Stieglitz's death, the 62-year-old O'Keeffe moved permanently to her Chama valley homes, spending the warmer months on the ranch, the colder ones in the village.
Abstract tongue. Whether painting distant mountains (particularly her beloved Pedernal), red and yellow sandstone cliffs, dead juniper trees, or the patio door of her Abiquiu house, O'Keeffe reconnected with her earliest artistic inclinations. She moved slowly from realism toward what one of her finest critics, Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., describes as a reacquaintance "with the issues of abstraction--the language that had always appealed to her." Increasingly, says biographer Hunter Drohojowska-Philp, O'Keeffe chose subjects for their "private symbolism and inherently reductive form--a door in a wall, a curved road against a white field . . . ."
A visitor entering O'Keeffe territory might well begin in the village of Abiquiu, a small cluster of adobe houses and a mission church arrayed around a dusty dirt plaza. Just off the square sits the artist's walled 4-acre estate. A guided tour of the property, offered from spring through late autumn, must be booked--and paid for one month in advance--through the O'Keeffe Foundation (505-685-4539), though travelers should note that the house and other assets of the foundation will be transferred to the O'Keeffe museum by 2006.
The tour is richly rewarding. Each meticulously planned detail of the sprawling 5,000-square-foot house and studio shows how seamless art and life were for O'Keeffe and how little a distinction she drew between fine art and the more practical arts of architecture, interior and furniture design, and even horticulture. Everything--from the delicate flour-paste-covered mud floors of the living room to the monastic simplicity of her bedroom perched almost on the edge of the bluff--is as carefully thought out as anything O'Keeffe ever put on canvas.