A Hike at Ghost Ranch

The American landscape has served as a prominent subject for generations of artists, and the modernists of the twentieth century, who brought to it unique elements of abstraction, embraced it with zeal equal to that of their realist predecessors of the nineteenth century.  Specifically, the landscape of northern New Mexico has proven to be exceptionally inspirational to the artists of the American modernist movement, most notably Georgia O’Keeffe, who painted numerous scenes of the New Mexican landscape following her frequent visits from New York City to Ghost Ranch, north of Abiquiú, starting in the 1920s.  .

I visited the area recently to experience the place that inspired some of O’Keeffe’s most famous landscapes.  As I followed the trail through the hills sitting below the mesa on which sits the rock formation that inspired O’Keeffe’s The Cliff Chimneys (1938), it became clear that source of O’Keeffe’s inspiration is the singular appearance and essence of Ghost Ranch and the surrounding region.


Georgia O’Keeffe, The Cliff Chimneys, 1938


Chimney Rocks, Ghost Ranch, 2014

In the catalog that accompanied her exhibition A Sense of Place, Barbara Buhler Lynes, the founding curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, notes that O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch paintings take a significantly realistic departure from her earlier abstract paintings[1].  A painting like The Cliff Chimneys certainly does appear to have a much more concrete foundation in reality when compared to O’Keeffe’s abstractions of the 1910s and early 1920s, but the artist nonetheless captures the intangible energy of the scenery of northern New Mexico.  O’Keeffe accomplishes this by first portraying the formation in a manner that is wholly faithful to reality, providing a concrete vision of the landform that is immediately recognizable to the viewer.  Contained within this concrete vision, however, are several notable abstract elements, such as a substantial emphasis on color, distinguished by a vivid palate of red, orange, and tan that is contrasted with the grey and brown of the mesa behind the formation and accented by the green colors of the sparse vegetation in the scene.  O’Keeffe also meaningfully softens the forms of the scene, subduing the hard, jagged edges of the rocky formations and making them appear as almost cloudlike in texture.

As I ascended the trail toward the Chimney Rocks, it became apparent to me that O’Keeffe’s representation of Chimney Rocks perfectly embodies the qualities of the landscape surrounding Ghost Ranch through its seamless integration of abstract devices into an overall concrete scene.  Much like the specific scene depicted in The Cliff Chimneys, the rest of the area around Ghost Ranch is vast and substantial.  It envelops its visitors in is massiveness, leaving no doubt in one’s mind of its reality.  Conversely, this vastness, along with the uniquely colored and shaped landforms in the area, simultaneously introduces a surreal element to the landscape.  The bright red and orange colors that characterize the area seem almost otherworldly as they tint the hills, cliffs, and mesas that encircle Ghost Ranch, each of which have their own unique shape and appearance.  O’Keeffe captures all of these distinctive aspects of the landscape in her depiction of Chimney Rocks, as she illustrates the concrete and seemingly physically unshakable nature of the area’s landforms as well as the sense of transcendent wonder they are capable of inspiring in a viewer.

My visit to Chimney Rocks made this importance of the coexistence of these two notions and the reasoning behind Georgia O’Keeffe’s fascination with the area abundantly clear.  Its paradoxical nature makes it an ideal subject for the artist’s examination through her paintings.  On one hand, the landscape exudes an aura of harshness and brutality.  The area’s violent geological history is evidenced through sun-scorched bands of red, brown, and white which color the steep canyon walls, cliffs, and mesas that are sparsely populated with dry vegetation.  It is a much less hospitable environment than those portrayed in the works of contemporaries of O’Keeffe such as Edward Hopper and Marsden Hartley, who rendered the mountains and coastline of Maine in cool shades of blue and green.


Edward Hopper, Blackhead, Monhegan, 1919

These artists brought out the tranquility of idyllic New England in their works by creating scenes with no apparent resemblance to O’Keeffe’s parched New Mexico landscapes.  O’Keeffe functioned in a similar manner to her contemporaries however, in that she likewise amplified the abstract energy of the landscapes she painted.

While Hopper and Hartley highlighted the serene atmosphere surrounding their landscapes, O’Keeffe displayed the beauty of the land around Ghost Ranch along with its brutality.  Her depictions of the region around Ghost Ranch fully acknowledge its hot, dry, and unforgiving essence while also bringing into focus the placidity that exists in the silent stillness of the ancient landforms.

I visited Ghost Ranch with the intention of contemplating O’Keeffe’s The Cliff Chimneys and her other paintings of New Mexico as I hiked to the top of the formation that inspired the former.  Through experiencing the area firsthand, I gained a modicum of understanding of O’Keeffe’s fascination with the region.  It is merciless yet beautiful, and despite its physical harshness, it offers an ambiance of tranquility, marvel, and positivity.  These qualities lead O’Keeffe regard it as a part of what she pensively referred to as the “Faraway.”

I highly recommend a visit.


Northward view from atop Chimney Rocks, 2014

Patrick Gora, Curatorial Intern


Barbara Buhler Lynes, Lesley Poling-Kempes, and Frederick W. Turner, A Sense of Place, 2004


Barbara Buhler Lynes, Lesley Poling-Kempes, and Frederick W. Turner, A Sense of Place, 2004


Image Copyrights:

The Chimney Cliffs: Milwaukee Art Museum

Blackhead, Monhegan: New Britain Museum of American Art

[1] Barbara Buhler Lynes, A Sense of Place, 13

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