Even if you’re not familiar with Georgia O’Keeffe’s name, you’ll probably recognise her paintings. Thirty years after her death, aged 98 in 1986, the trailblazing modernist has become an art icon – and the most expensive female artist at auction when her 1932 Jimson Weed canvas sold for a staggering $44 million in 2014.
O’Keeffe’s huge, delicately detailed flower paintings have been interpreted by many as depictions of female genitalia. But the first major exhibition, opening on 6 July at Tate Modern, challenges this Freudian reading, which O’Keeffe herself vehemently denied. The retrospective gathers more than 100 works. One of the things likely to strike visitors is how much of O’Keeffe’s work was inspired by New Mexico. Besides her famous flowers, she produced dozens of paintings of sun-bleached animal skulls, adobe churches, Native American figurines and vibrant landscapes.
My Backyard, 1937; Main image above: Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II, 1930,©2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/ DACS, London
Exhibition curator Tanya Barson believes O’Keeffe was drawn to this desert state because of her Midwest childhood. The artist was born on a dairy farm in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin, in 1887. “This was a fascinating landscape to her, but it was also one that felt familiar,” says Barson. “For her, the true America was wide-open spaces: Wisconsin, Texas, New Mexico.”
In her 20s, O’Keeffe moved to Texas to teach. Her big break as an artist came in 1916 when photographer Alfred Stieglitz exhibited her charcoal paintings in his Manhattan gallery. He quickly became her mentor, promoter and lover, despite the fact that she was a 28-year-old little-known painter and he was 52, a giant of the New York art scene, and married. They wed in 1924.
O’Keeffe’s life-long love affair with New Mexico began five years later when a wealthy patron, Mabel Dodge Luhan, invited the artist to stay at her home in Taos, a small town north of Santa Fe. O’Keeffe was immediately smitten with the adobe house and its glorious view of Taos Mountain. “This really isn’t like anything you ever saw,” she wrote to Stieglitz. “Mabel’s place beats anything you can imagine about it – it is simply astonishing… It is bedtime and I am not a bit sleepy… I lay in the sun a long time this afternoon – the air is cold and the wind – but the sun is hot.”
Taos in New Mexico
It wasn’t just the mountains that captivated O’Keeffe. Mabel’s fourth husband, Tony Luhan, was a Pueblo Native American who introduced the artist to cultural influences, including dances and spirit beings. “What interests her are the layered cultures on the American landscape and how they all figure in the creation of a uniquely American identity,” says Barson. “So in New Mexico, what she encounters are Native American communities as well as the Spanish colonial influences.”
Above all, it was O’Keeffe’s cultural nationalism that kept her coming back: her obsession with creating an American modernism. “She dismisses all those city men back east who always talk about creating the Great American Novel. She accuses them of not having been west of the Hudson and demands: ‘How is the Great American Thing meant to happen?’” But she finally made the permanent move west after Stieglitz’s death in 1946.
Explore O’Keeffe country
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum has 140 of her oil paintings and nearly 700 of her drawings. You can also visit colonial-era adobe churches and the 17th-century Palace of the Governors.
For more information: okeeffemuseum.org
The Mabel Dodge Luhan House
In 1970, actor Dennis Hopper bought this house in Taos and renamed it “Mud Palace”. Nowadays it’s a B&B. You can even sleep in Mabel’s bed since it was built in the room and no one’s ever been able to get it out.
For more information: mabeldodgeluhan.com
My Front Yard, Summer, 1941, ©2016 Georgia O’Keeffe Museum/ DACS, London
Abiquiu home and studio
Her Abiquiu home is an hour north of Santa Fe and open for tours between March and November, which can be arranged through the O’Keeffe museum in Abiquiu. The “White Place” is Plaza Blanca, a limestone rock formation near Abiquiu in the Chama River Valley.
From 1934, O’Keeffe stayed in and later owned a house on Ghost Ranch, 30 minutes north west of Abiquiu — she was dismayed to learn that it was a dude ranch run for wealthy tourists to experience the Wild West, but she loved the colours and forms of the rocky landscape. The paintings My Front Yard and Backyard (pictured above) depict the mountains surrounding her home at Ghost Ranch. You can only view her house from the outside, but you can take a tour of the rock formations that she painted and walk through O’Keeffe country.
For more information: ghostranch.org
The Black Place
The distinctive grey hills that O’Keeffe called the “Black Place” are 150 miles west of Ghost Ranch in Navajo County. O’Keeffe camped out there several times because back then it would have taken a long time, possibly days, to reach them.
Tate Modern’s Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition runs from 6 July to 30 October. Visit tate.org.uk for more details
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