ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Overcome by the beauty of her newfound New Mexico, Georgia O’Keeffe documented her first encounters with katsinas, adobe walls and landscapes with a nearly photographic precision.
As her familiarity with her new home deepened in the 1940s, her canvas took on a more contemporary aesthetic, fueled by her expressionistic approach to her subjects.
“Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land” at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum reveals this critical shift as the state’s mountains, mesas and cultures sank deeply into her vision. The show includes several rarely-seen works, including O’Keeffe’s 1929 paintings of the Italian ceramic roosters atop Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Taos home.
The artist responded to the area’s cultural richness almost as quickly as she arrived, curator Carolyn Kastner said.
Viewers can watch as her brush moves from clearly delineated representation into the softly flowing edges of abstraction.
“Black Cross with Stars and Blue” and “At the Rodeo, New Mexico,” both painted in 1929, demonstrate her exploration of her new environment and color experimentation, the confrontation of new forms and compositional strategies.
From the first, she attended a feast day and corn dance at San Felipe Pueblo, traveled to rodeos in both Albuquerque and Las Vegas, N.M., and responded with numerous drawings, watercolors and paintings. She painted and drew katsinas, retaining the works so that they remained largely unknown to the general public.
As soon as she arrived here, O’Keeffe bought a car, learned to drive and traveled to pueblo feast days and rodeos.
“In 1929, every bit of this was new to her. She was just on fire with New Mexico,” Kastner said.
“At the Rodeo, New Mexico” (1929) shows that fire exploding in concentric rainbows of circles and spirals.
“It’s about the sound, the music and the color,” Kastner said.
In a lifetime of practice, O’Keeffe always drew sketches and contour drawings before picking up her brush. She even marked all of the color shifts. It was a discipline that ultimately freed her, Kastner said. Several of these drawings will hang in the show next to the paintings they inspired.
“I really believe this is what kept her creative throughout the rest of her life,” Kastner said. “She had three new series — three new subjects — after she was 70 years old. I don’t know of another artist as dedicated.”
In both her rooster paintings as well as the penitente cross in “Black Cross with Stars and Blue” (1929), O’Keeffe added Taos Mountain as a backdrop, although it is geographically invisible from either angle.
“We went out to see the cross — it’s still there — and you can’t see Taos Mountain this way,” Kastner said. “The landscapes are all like this. We went up to the very bedroom (of Luhan’s house). We looked at all the windows and there’s no way the mountains are to the north. She’s trying to take in all the things she’s seeing.”
Like Paul Gauguin in Tahiti or Pablo Picasso with his studio of African masks, O’Keeffe encountered and embraced a tribal aesthetic and cultural traditions that would become integral to her work.
By 1947-48, her katsina paintings reveal an emerging abstraction. “Kokopelli with Snow” was painted during a return to New York; the artist added the snowflakes falling outside her window.
“She writes to (her friend) Maria Chabot about her paintings,” Kastner said. “She wrote that it’s snowing and she’s making him a snow god. This is another of her abstractions; she removed the doll from its context.
“This is Georgia O’Keeffe studying another artist — the carver,” she added.
By the time O’Keeffe painted “Black Place II” in 1945, her imagery has grown shadowy and less distinct; its hard edges and boundaries softened into the creases and folds of the landscape.
Before New Mexico, O’Keeffe had been known for her clear lines and for meticulously mixing her paint before she put brush to canvas.
“It’s expressive brushwork,” Kastner said. “She’s mixing color on the canvas, which is very new for her. It’s her trying to figure out how to express this landscape. She’s ecstatic about the color and the light. The longer she’s there, the more it’s abstract.”
The timeline ends with O’Keeffe’s landscapes from the 1950s: “Mesa and Road East” and “Easter Sunrise.”
“This is the last time she made major paintings about the landscape,” Kastner said.
A glowing cross hangs in the foreground of “Easter Sunrise.” Although O’Keeffe was not religious, she was exposed to the regular stream of congregants at St. Thomas Church across from her Abiquiú home.
“The church is in O’Keeffe’s backyard,” Kastner said. “I think it’s an abstraction — it’s a thought, a memory.”
The exhibit displays the artist’s paintings with those of Dan Namingha and Ramona Sakiestewa to show the continuity of O’Keeffe’s abstracted approach. Both Namingha and Sakiestewa said their work had been inspired by katsina and O’Keeffe.
“This is when O’Keeffe made it her own and abstraction is the path she follows,” Kastner said. “This exhibition explores how she becomes the O’Keeffe we knew.”