SANTA FE – To put paint to canvas, Georgia O’Keeffe only had to look out her window.
“Ghost Ranch Views” showcases the results at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum through March 22.
Abounding in landscapes of the cliffs and mesas surrounding her, the paintings reveal O’Keeffe’s steady exploration of abstraction, always based firmly in nature. Compositions viewed through the lens of a hip joint hang near images of the towering cliffs she simplified with undulating lines and delicately blended pinks, corals and yellows.
O’Keeffe painted these red and yellow walls more than a dozen times between 1937 and 1952. Accompanying photographs by Ansel Adams, Tony Vaccaro and others show her painting in her 1929 Model A Ford – her traveling studio – hiking with her dogs and relaxing in the patio of her Ghost Ranch home with piles of the desert bones she collected on all of her walks.
“She began collecting them in 1929 on her first visit,” museum curator Carolyn Kastner said. “She shipped a barrel of bones home to New York. Her first bone paintings were done in New York.”
O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch patio faced her beloved pedernal, the narrow mesa she painted so often it became a personal talisman. She repeatedly referred to the familiar flat mesa as “my mountain.”
The artist discovered the 21,000-acre Ghost Ranch in the remote high desert in 1934. Immediately transfixed, she rented a room and returned to paint again the next year. The intense contrasts of color and form in the eroded hills and rocky mesas were visually irresistible to her.
In 1936 she stayed in an adobe house built by Arthur Pack, owner and operator of the dude ranch. After staying in the house for four years, she bought it and seven acres of the surrounding land in 1940.
The Cerro Pedernal (Flint Hill) loomed 12 miles to the south.
“Pedernal,” 1945, features a pelvis bone that seems to rise from the New Mexico landscape. A close look reveals the shadow of a graphite line just above the Jemez Mountain peak, showing that the artist dropped the image from its originally sketched placement.
“She had the ability to cover that line,” Kastner said, “but she didn’t.”
“Pelvis IV,” 1944, shows the moon-bright sky framed by a hip socket.
“She says (in her letters to husband Alfred Stieglitz), ‘I just picked one up and looked through it and saw the blue sky,'” Kastner said.
An accompanying Tony Vaccaro photograph shows a playful-looking O’Keeffe holding a piece of Swiss cheese to her eye while sitting in her car.
She enlarged the original 3-inch bone (likely from a rodent) so that it resembled that of a steer or a bison. She then placed the moon inside the oval frame.
“The first switch is she makes a very large bone in the painting,” Kastner said. “If it was real, it would have been the largest dinosaur bone ever found. Her perception is just flawless.
“Your eye can’t resolve it,” Kastner continued. “Your eye keeps going back and forth between the bone and the moon.”
“Untitled (Red and Yellow Cliffs),” 1940, captures the area’s staggering geology in fissures of pink, rose, ochre and yellow with a peek of blue sky at the top.
“She never centers something on the canvas,” Kastner said. “She pushes it up, making it monumental to us.”
In “Red Hills and White Flower,” 1937, the contours of the petals mirror those of the copper hills.
“Her work has an abstract quality, always,” Kastner said. “It’s putting it out of scale; this flower looks as large as this mountain. Logically, it doesn’t work. But the color and composition make it successful.”
Long after O’Keeffe had painted her final landscape, the Ghost Ranch house and landscape served as her sanctuary where she continued to enjoy walks until late in her long life. She died in 1986 at the age of 98.