Few artists have captured the Southwest as vividly and as devotedly as Georgia O’Keeffe. The painter who got her start in the hustle and bustle of the New York art world made a decisive move to New Mexico early in her artistic career and never looked back, using the Southwestern sky and landscape as her muse for nearly seven decades. Along the way, O’Keeffe developed new approaches to color, form and subject that resonated through visual art.
O’Keeffe was originally from the Midwest. Raised in Wisconsin and trained as a painter at the Art Institute of Chicago, her career in the arts developed mostly east of the Mississippi River. A turning point in her life as a painter occurred while she was teaching in Virginia. In a summer painting course while in Virginia, O’Keeffe was introduced to the innovative ideas of Arthur Wesley Dow which advocated for paintings to expand beyond realistic representation into the realm of emotional and personal impressions.
O’Keeffe followed these ideas in her own work, leaning into greater experiments with abstraction and color. Her painting style takes shape in this period as it develops into the work approach she is best known for.
Around this time, O’Keeffe also crosses paths with the photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz when a friend shows him one of O’Keeffe’s abstract charcoal drawings. Stieglitz offered O’Keeffe financial and artistic support and the two developed a close-knit relationship. On Stieglitz’s urging, O’Keeffe made the move to New York City, where she became an established painter and a shaping force in American Modernism, best known for her lush close-up portrayals of flowers, leaves and organic forms.
Opportunities in the West
Georgia O’Keeffe spent over a decade in New York City before artistic opportunities brought her to the Southwest. After spending time in Taos in 1929, the subject matter of the Southwest landscape began to be a driving force in her paintings. For much of the rest of her life, O’Keeffe spent at least part of the year in Northern New Mexico. In 1949 the artist moved to her renovated adobe home in Abiquiu, New Mexico full time.
The desert landscape fueled her work and made her an iconic figure in modern art. The paintings that follow her move involve nearby landscapes as well as details of her house. Her iconic home in the Southwest, called Ghost Ranch, is now open to the public for tours while her tremendous archive and body of work is handled by the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation.
Sky and Light
O’Keeffe’s work is a poetic balance between form and color. Fascinated by the evocativeness of light, even her paintings of New York City emphasize the dramatic glow of color and light on the city’s skyscrapers. When O’Keeffe travelled to the Southwest for the first time, the impact of the big bright sky across the American desert resonated through all of her work.
As documented in correspondence with her closest friends, the Southwest sky was an eternal muse to O’Keeffe’s work. Her pivotal painting, Black Cross, captures the drama and intensity of a desert sunset. With her series of skull paintings, O’Keeffe captured the desert climate not just with the skeletal portraits, but also with the drama in play with the skulls behind them. Throughout her time in the Southwest, portraying the contrast between clouds and sun led to some of her most striking and well-known paintings.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s life and work changed American painting and opened doors for women in the arts. Her commitment to vision and place altered the presumption of a New York-centered art world and she was one of the first modernist artists to make the American Southwest a central muse and subject to her work, showing many people around the world a vision of the Southwest’s dramatic beauty.
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