Monday, 12 December 2011

The Art of America - O'Keeffe & New Mexico

Georgia O'Keeffe, Black Cross NM, 1929
Inscrutable behind mirror shades, the art critic drives north along the wide valley of the Rio Grande, following the highway between dry mountain ranges. Signs invite him to play at a casino or buy cheap Indian gas, but he drives on towards distant olive-green mountains, named the Sangre de Cristos for the blood-red colour of the New Mexican sunset.

If it's summer the mountains, as he approaches, will be topped by a towering thunderhead - or an anvil of smoke from a mile-square forest fire. Winter snow usually covers the mountains from Christmas onwards, and on occasions the high plains are white too. Mostly, though, reddish-brown and ochre are the dominant colours, along with the muted greens of pinon, chamisa and sage - and dazzling blue sky.

Northern New Mexico (heading south from Colorado)
The highway approaches the foothills and into view comes La Villa Real de la Santa Fé de San Francisco de Asís ('The Royal Town of the Holy Faith of St. Francis of Assisi'), or Santa Fe as it has been known for most of its 400 years. Today the city sprawls outward from the hills across the plain, with vast subdivisions spreading miles in every direction. A British city of a similar population (67,000) would be far smaller, but that's the West for you; like the horizons, the houses, yards and vehicles are wide.

Taos Pueblo
Our critic has a choice here: he can carry on up the Rio Grande, through Espanola, to visit Georgia O'Keeffe's old place above Abiquiu or head up into the mountains to Taos. Alternatively he can stop in Santa Fe itself. Whichever he chooses, he will find himself in an America different from either the sophisticated liberal-minded coastal cities or the republican-minded, God-fearing walmart country that stretches from sea to shining sea. Though a religious land, this is not the Bible Belt; Northern New Mexico is Catholic not Baptist. It is also one of the few places in the country where Native Americans, the descendants of 17th century Spanish Conquistadors and more recent arrivals from the east coast manage to live side by side - not always without animosity, it has to be said, but without destroying each other.

Ernest L Blumenschein, Haystack, Taos Valley, 1927
If we were on TV we might see as a historical introduction the cave-dwellings of the Anasazi, ancestors of today's Pueblo Indian tribes, followed by drawings of Conquistadors trudging north from Mexico in search of El Dorado (seeking gold, they found subsistence farmers growing beans and corn),  and then some pictures of wagon trains heading west on the Old Santa Fe Trail. Billy the Kid might feature, and Chisum, and Geronimo. And the railroad... This is the West, a place of mingled cultures and ancient grudges and a region where people can leave their past selves behind and begin anew.

John Sloan, Road to Santa Fe, 1924
Take the road from Santa Fe to Abiquiu and see how many dirt roads head off into the hills. People live out there, off-grid, with a pick-up truck, a generator, a well and a gun. There are communes and cult centres, and artists living in trailers that they have extended, reroofed, rendered...

Artists came first to Taos, attracted by the extraordinary architecture of Taos Pueblo and the colourful culture of its inhabitants, as well as by the radiant light of Northern New Mexico. According to legend the painters Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips were travelling from Denver to Mexico in the summer of 1898, when a wheel broke on their carriage. As luck would have it they were only a few miles from Taos, and that's where they went for help. They went no further.

Storm brewing over Northern NM
By the time New Mexico became a state in 1912, it already had a reputation as an enchanted region, a reputation exploited by advertisers of the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad. The journey from Chicago or New York was hard but not impossible, and in the years after World War I artists came in ever-increasing numbers to Santa Fe. Some came to recover from tuberculosis in the dry climate; some came for the light; some came to paint (and give political support to) the Indians; some found in the strange geology and landscape ideal material for Modernist techniques.

John Sloan and Randall Davey were among the first to set up summer homes in the town, and you can still visit Davey's house (which is owned by the Audubon Society) and its beautiful mountain orchard. The paintings they exhibited (successfully) in New York encouraged others to visit New Mexico: Marsden Hartley and Arthur Dove, John Marin and Andrew Dasburg. Some stayed in Santa Fe permanently, enduring the cold, hard winters when there were no tourists to buy pictures and virtually no other way to earn a living.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Pedernal from the Ranch, 1956

Of these the best-known were the Cinco Pintores, a loosely-affiliated group who established a colony on Camino del Monte Sol, just below the TB hospital. Known as 'the five little nuts in the five adobe huts', Jozef Bakos, Fremont Ellis, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash and Will Shuster made the colony self-sustaining and permanent, with the glorious Museum of Fine Arts giving them a place to show (and sell) work.

Pedernal, nr Abiquiu NM - O'Keeffe Country
Moving to Taos in 1919, the socialite Mabel Dodge Luhan did her bit to encourage artists and writers to visit New Mexico. Willa Cather and photographer Ansel Adams were among her celebrity guests, but her most enduring literary friendship was with DH Lawrence, who set up home at a ranch nearby (also open to the public).

In May 1929 Georgia O'Keeffe visited New Mexico for the first time, and was immediately taken in hand by Mabel Dodge, who lent her a studio and a base from which to explore the surrounding country. O'Keeffe was already famous, both for her flower paintings and as a doyenne of the New York art scene; her husband Alfred Stieglitz was a mover and a shaker who helped her become one of the most prominent and highly-paid artists of her time.

Georgia O'Keeffe, Rancho de Taos Church, 1934
But O'Keeffe needed new inspiration and in New Mexico she found it, immediately focusing on the church architecture, skulls and crosses that were to provide her with subject matter for decades. Moving permanently to Ghost Ranch, just above Abiquiu, in 1940, she spent forty years evolving into the tough, self-contained old woman who still haunts the region as a kind of desert seer. She lived so long (dying in 1986 at the age of 98) that she seemed as permanent as the mountains and desert she loved, and in Santa Fe everyone over a certain age has a story that begins, 'Did I ever tell you about the time I met Georgia... ?'

Acequia Madre, Santa Fe, NM
I also remember people telling me that the artist didn't like Santa Fe, a not uncommon feeling among people who come to New Mexico for the isolation of the desert rather than the restaurants and galleries of the capital. Nevertheless, the city has adopted her as its own, with the O'Keeffe Museum adding to the already numerous tourist attractions it has to offer. Chief among these is (to my mind) the fact that old Santa Fe is a beautiful town of adobe houses set in quiet tree-lined streets; you can walk from the Plaza to the mountains (providing you're fairly fit), and enjoy the huge clear skies of the state that calls itself (without a shred of irony, and ignoring the shocking divide between rich and poor) the Land of Enchantment.

I've added a lecture on O'Keeffe and New Mexico to my list - please have a look at my Illustrated Lectures page.

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