The extent of what I knew about O’Keefe hung above the stairs of the Modern Wing at the Chicago Art Institute. “Sky Above Clouds IV” is a massive cloudscape. It's eight feet high and twenty-four feet wide. She created it as a part of her airline passenger series. Scenes she saw from the window of airplanes.
It’s one of those artworks that you look at and immediately think, “That’s art? I could do that.” But then you stand there for a moment, trying to figure out what makes it art. The realization you come to that even though it’s simple, you couldn’t do it because you don’t see the world that way. She didn’t just look. She saw.
As a modern art lover, I’ve been aware of her work. The flowers didn’t interest me much – even though they were interesting. Maybe it was because she was American, or dare I tell a woman that I gave her less regard than I should have. I see that now. But I still don’t know Georgia.
When I go places, I visit museums if I can. In Santa Fe, the preeminent art museum was the O’Keefe Museum. So I made an appointment and decided to learn about the woman whom I knew too little.
She was often called the “Mother of American modernism.” She favored landscape and still life and dead things. Her work skewed toward the abstract if it wasn’t realism.
She lived years of her life in New York City, but New Mexico called to her. Slowly, she spent more time there until she never left again. Not her body and certainly not her soul.
There are places in New Mexico called “Georgia O’Keefe’s” she’s so well associated with them now. There are mountains she owns in spirit.
In Abiquiu, New Mexico, there is a flat-topped mountain called Cerro Pedernal. She said it was her mountain and painted it frequently.
I went to Abiquiu and stood outside of Ghost Ranch, a place she frequented, lived at and loved. I stood where she must have stood so many times, painting that mountain.
I drove to her home and studio, now a museum, and I stood outside her beloved garden, and I turned around and around. I was looking for what she saw and recognizing so much of it. This is what she wanted us to see.
But what about the woman who, after her husband died, came to New Mexico and lived alone. By day she explored and painted. By night climbed her "ladder to the moon" and laid on her flat adobe roof. Alone with the mountains and stars.
What do we know about her?
We know what she wanted us to know. She was an avid traveler crossing the globe many times. A fierce feminist and an unrelenting loner. Maybe for a while, she went crazy. She didn’t work at all, and then she did again. This is what the record shows.
I’ve spent the last month following her footsteps. I looked out my window and stared at the Taos mountains for hours. I’ve climbed its peaks and marveled in their grandeur.
Also I’ve stood about “her mountain” at Ghost Ranch. Her home in Abiquiu and at the museum. Surely they should know all there is to know about her and still, she is elusive to me.
I’ve walked where she walked and stood where she stood and smelled the lilacs she must have smelled. I've gasped at the red, red, red, of the rocks and black mountains and white sand and sun and stars. I've wondered about a place called the Faraway, Nearby.
Still, I don’t know her any more than I did before about O'Keefe. But I’ve seen what she wanted me to see. And that is enough—more than enough.
Find the O'Keefe museum at 217 Johnson St, Santa Fe, NM 87501. Reservations are required.