O’Keeffe County: Northern NM saturated with beauty that inspired American modernist painter

By Susan Montoya Bryan, AP
Tuesday, May 18, 2010

O’Keeffe draws art lovers to northern New Mexico

GHOST RANCH, N.M. — Sandstone cliffs rise from the desert floor in layers of orange, pink and yellow, limited only by the expansive blue sky that pushes down on the sprawling northern New Mexico ranch from above. Save for a few birds chirping and a breeze whistling through cedar trees, it’s quiet here.

This is Georgia O’Keeffe Country — remote, solitary and breathtaking.

It was O’Keeffe, the American modernist painter, who found a way to transport the light, colors and shapes of the cliffs and clay hills around Ghost Ranch and nearby Abiquiu to canvas for the rest of the world to see.

Thousands of people flock to Santa Fe every year to visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, where an exhibition of her work called “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” opens May 28. But those who want to see the actual landscapes that inspired O’Keeffe’s work can make the pilgrimage here, to Ghost Ranch.

Ghost Ranch is in the heart of O’Keeffe Country, up the Chama River Valley, passing Espanola and several small communities along a sleepy two-lane highway. The late artist called it “the best place in the world.”

“We get a lot of people who are really intrigued by her. They want to understand what really motivated her so they come here to see all of this,” said Ghost Ranch tour guide Karen Butts.

O’Keeffe spent hours — sometimes days — exploring this land by foot and automobile, looking for her next subject: red and purple hills, white and yellow cliffs, and the cedars that dot many of her landscapes. Even the ladder O’Keeffe used to climb to her roof for a better vantage point is still propped against her adobe home.

The Ghost Ranch landscape tours are offered four days a week; visitors can also stay at the ranch overnight. As Butts led a group of visitors on a recent day, she stopped to point out certain vistas, like Cerro Pedernal, a blue silhouetted hill on the southern horizon that O’Keeffe painted and sketched dozens of times.

“She loved this part of the ranch. She loved the views here,” Butts told the group.

Anna Koloseike, an art teacher from Asheville, N.C., tilted her head to see past the brim of her straw hat as the guide held up a color copy of “The Cliff Chimneys, 1938.” In the distance, the same sandstone columns jutted out from the cliff.

“After having looked at her landscapes, I feel like I know New Mexico in a sense,” Koloseike said. “It’s really fun to finally see it and stand where she stood.”

Northern New Mexico first captured the painter’s attention nearly a century ago. Far from the galleries frequented by New York’s social elite and its art critics, the area so inspired her that she gave up New York and made New Mexico her permanent home.

“When I think of death I only regret that I will not be able to see this beautiful country anymore, unless the Indians are right and my spirit will walk here after I’m gone,” O’Keeffe said in a 1967 interview.

She died in 1986 at age 98. Her ashes were scattered from atop Pedernal.

O’Keeffe owned only a small parcel of land at Ghost Ranch but she considered the colored cliffs her backyard and the valley and Pedernal her front yard.

“The most fascinating thing for people is to realize that she was painting what she saw, especially in New Mexico. Those pictures, those colors are real and she really captured the area,” said Barbara Buhler Lynes, a leading O’Keeffe scholar and curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.

The ranch began offering tours a few years ago using a catalog created to accompany “Georgia O’Keeffe and New Mexico: A Sense of Place,” a museum exhibition organized by Lynes that highlighted many of the paintings the artist made at Ghost Ranch, Abiquiu, Alcalde, the Taos area and along the Chama River.

Lynes pinpointed more than 60 sites in New Mexico’s high desert that inspired O’Keeffe’s landscape paintings.

Outside of Abiquiu on the south side of the road, travelers can see the hills that inspired “New Mexico Landscape,” painted in 1930. Up the road is “Chama River, Ghost Ranch,” painted around 1935. Then there’s “From The White Place,” a 1940 painting of natural formations near Abiquiu.

At O’Keeffe’s Abiquiu home, situated on a hill overlooking the valley, visitors can step into her spacious studio, take in the incredible view she had from her bedroom windows and see the artist’s rock collections scattered around the property.

The home is just as O’Keeffe left it, with her tea collection on the pantry shelf and D.H. Lawrence first editions and books on gardening, health and cooking stacked in the library.

“With O’Keeffe’s reputation and place in history, I think that it’s sort of a site that’s really sought out. People really do love to come here and see her artwork and to see her home and studio,” said museum director Robert Kret.

Susan and Jeremy Berry of London were visiting Houston when they decided to take a quick flight to New Mexico to see O’Keeffe Country and her paintings.

“She can be seen as the one who painted all of those lovely flowers and everything, but there’s so much more in her stuff than just a woman who painted flowers,” Susan Berry said.

Aside from the New Mexico landscape and her studio, fans have another reason to visit O’Keeffe Country. The museum in Santa Fe will be home over the next three months to an exhibition of more than 100 of the artist’s abstract works.

“Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction” will be shown in Santa Fe — its only venue in the western U.S. — May 28-Sept. 12. It was organized with the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. It debuted at the Whitney last fall and made a stop at The Phillips earlier this year.

While O’Keeffe is known for landscapes and large-scale flower paintings, Lynes said abstraction was her preferred means of expression beginning in 1915, when she completed a series of abstract charcoal drawings.

Lynes said she’s been promoting this relatively unknown side of O’Keeffe’s work for 20 years. She’s pleased to see, with the “Abstraction” show, that O’Keeffe is finally being taken seriously as a “daring and innovative artist” rather than simply as a flower painter.

Many works in “Abstraction” were completed before O’Keeffe began working in New Mexico. Yet, the show includes abstracts from the 1940s of the barren black and gray hills west of Ghost Ranch and works done in the 1950s of the wall and patio door at the Abiquiu home, a subject that fascinated O’Keeffe.

Lynes believes it’s the immediacy, sensuality and accessibility of O’Keeffe’s work that appeals to people.

“Even the abstractions are accessible and engage viewers in sensual and seemingly animate forms, and I think they appeal to us because they relate to similar forces within ourselves,” she said.

Back at Ghost Ranch, Butts expanded on why O’Keeffe remains so well-regarded.

“She broke a lot of barriers. She was just one of those women in her time who didn’t think of herself as a feminist,” Butts said. “She just did what she did. She wasn’t trying to make a statement. She wasn’t constrained, and I think that appeals to people in a big way.”

If You Go…

GEORGIA O’KEEFFE MUSEUM: 217 Johnson St., Santa Fe; www.okeeffemuseum.org/ or 505-946-1000. Admission: $10. The museum is closed until May 27 for the installation of “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abstraction,” which runs May 28-Sept. 12. Museum summer hours through Sept. 11: Sunday-Wednesday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.

GHOST RANCH: www.ghostranch.org/ or 877-804-4678. Located 65 miles northwest of Santa Fe on U.S. 84; directions on website. Open for hiking daily. “O’Keeffe Landscape” tours offered Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. and 3 p.m., $25, reservations required. Ranch lodging, $89-$299 nightly, depending on accommodations.

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