The gray landscape shivered around us as we hurried toward the warmth of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) entrance. The large glass panels of the lobby windows kept the dreary day close at hand as we purchased tickets for the “Georgia O’Keeffe and the Southwestern Still Life” exhibit and rode quietly up the escalator.
But the warm colors of the exhibit walls and the openness of the sparse display quickly welcomed my husband and me into the sunny Southwest where O’Keeffe found her deepest inspiration. She was one of many artists who fled the crowded cities East of the Mississippi and made their way to the wide open spaces of New Mexico.
Ironically, when the artists arrived, many of them huddled together in colonies, seeking and finding for themselves the artistic communities their previous homes had afforded. While O’Keeffe herself chose a more solitary existence, eventually living alone full-time in New Mexico after her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, died, her world became very small in that great open West. Most of her paintings were of the landscapes she saw from her windows and the objects she collected from the landscape surrounding her home.
While the art world seemed to demand more and bigger of O’Keeffe—bigger portfolios, more exhibits, bigger audiences, more exposure, a bigger name for herself—she took the opportunity for more inspiration and bigger vistas to quiet the voracious appetites of others and feed her own imagination. She didn’t need the big name and the big audience. She wanted only the view, the door, the bone, the feather, the flower.
“She became a celebrity in her own time. Her artwork was selling for unheard of prices when she was still a relatively young woman. And being married to Alfred Steiglitz in New York, they were a couple that people recognized on the street. They were literally celebrities in their own time,” explains Debbie Brient, director of museum advancement at Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. “Yet she chose to leave one of the greatest cities in the world and a lifestyle of celebrity and come to one of the most remote areas of the country. And I think even today if someone said they were moving to Abiquiu, New Mexico, most people wouldn’t know where that is. And when they found out they would say, ‘Why?’”
The answer becomes clear when you look at O’Keeffe’s work in the exhibit currently on display at the IMA. Her paintings often depict just one object at a time. Her style was to simplify, enlarge, magnify, and remove from the surroundings. “I decided if I could paint that flower in huge scale, you could not ignore its beauty,” she said of her famous Jimson Weed composition. But the result seems quite the opposite. Her paintings are surprisingly small, and her compositions often reveal just how complex, minute, and interconnected things are to themselves, to each other, and to the places where they are found.
Could she have painted this way had she stayed in New York City? No doubt. But the allure of the Southwest beckoned her. O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1916 on her way to Texas. On a return visit in 1929, she became convinced it was a place she wanted to explore and paint. In 1934, O’Keeffe first visited Ghost Ranch, a dude ranch north of Abiquiu, New Mexico, that she later purchased. Here is where she found “a new inspiration for her work,” IMA exhibit material explains.
And in the process of moving to this new place, she found what had been missing from her experience as an artist.
“She was fully capable of painting a beautiful portrait of someone that was very realistic. She won prizes for still life that she painted. She could do that but she felt empty when she did it, because she was looking for a way to make her art express what she felt. Not just what she was seeing, but what she felt,” Brient said in a recent interview.
“When you learn about O’Keeffe, so many of her most famous works are landscapes looking out her bedroom window, or from her terrace. She, like many artists, would paint the same scene or object over and over again. And so it’s interesting to see how she progressed until she got it to a point where she left that subject, because she felt she had finally captured it the way she wanted to.”
One such series, in which she painted the same door of her Abiquiu house from various perspectives and in varied light, is part of the IMA exhibit, as is her iconic Yellow Cactus Flower; Jimson Weed, which is part of the IMA’s permanent collection; and Mule’s Skull with Pink Poinsettia, which combines the artist’s favorite still life themes of flowers and animal skulls.
Several other artists that were part of the Southwest Modern movement, including Gustave Baumann, Marsden Hartley, Raymond Jonson, and Victor Higgins also are part of the IMA exhibit which seeks to capture “art’s capacity to document a particular time and place.” Several of the artists’ pieces depicting similar subjects are displayed side by side, revealing similarities and differences of works that attempted to document the same time and same place.
I had encountered O’Keeffe before this exhibit. I had stood before Jimson Weed and marveled at its size and simplicity. I had seen a landscape or two, and I had known of O’Keeffe’s penchant for bones. I had even mocked—lightly, mind you—her straightforward naming conventions, like Red Poppy or Grey Hills.
But it wasn’t until I experienced for myself the extent of the repetition and revision of painting the same few objects over and over again—the bones, the flowers, the mountains, the doors, not just by O’Keeffe, but the entire movement of the American Southwest artists in the early twentieth century—that I understood the collective effect of a long career and close collaboration in not only documenting, but defining a place and time. O’Keeffe’s Southwest grew with her, if only in the minds of those who experienced it through her work.
Just as the Southwest found its way into O’Keeffe’s life and art, so O’Keeffe never left the Southwest again. Not permanently. She died in Santa Fe in 1986. But like the artifacts she collected and captured, her work lives on to tell the story of the place she loved.