Catching Some Abiquiu Views

After much anticipation, I have returned to the Museum this week for a second internship.  I am thoroughly excited to be back in Santa Fe and to be allowed to continue the excellent learning experience I began in September here at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

I am continuing my duties as an assistant to major cataloging projects for Judy Smith, the Museum’s registrar and collections manager. Instead of cataloging Miss O’Keeffe’s tangible personal property at our previous focal point of her home at Ghost Ranch, I now find myself working at her home in Abiquiú.  The latter site is located only a handful of miles south of Ghost Ranch.

I must admit that I was slightly disheartened at the idea of not being able to return to Miss O’Keeffe’s Ghost Ranch property, as I have acquired an affinity for the colorful, towering cliffs and mesas that surround the location.  Miss O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home is situated in a much more developed and less private area, and the house is not surrounded by so many distinctively beautiful geographic features, as is the case at Ghost Ranch.

Despite my initial feelings toward the location of Miss O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiú in comparison to that at Ghost Ranch, it has taken only two days for me to begin to understand the beauty and aesthetic qualities of the area that appealed to her as an artist.  Yesterday, I stood at the edge of the hill on which the house stands and looked out at the sprawling meadows and distant mesas that rise to meet the sky directly in view of the house.  The sight caused me to recall a conversation I once had with Carolyn Kastner, our Curator, in which she explained that the respective scenery of Ghost Ranch and Abiquiú affected Miss O’Keeffe’s art in different, yet equally profound ways.

This idea led me to consider how each house is situated in relation to the landforms surrounding them.  Miss O’Keeffe’s property at Ghost Ranch boasts many spectacular views of the cliffs that stand adjacent to it, as well as of the Pedernal, which stands in distant view from the side of the home opposite that which faces the cliffs.  The house sits at the base of these formations, a position that provides an observer with an ideal view of the effects of light and shadow on the appearance of the massive features that make up the landscape.  The appearances of these landforms from Miss O’Keeffe’s perspective at the cliff base are apparent in her landscape paintings from Ghost Ranch, which I have discussed in earlier entries.

On the other hand, the house at Abiquiú provides an alternative, but equally poignant view of the northern New Mexican landscape.  Instead of being situated at the base of a large series of cliffs and encircled by high landforms on all sides, as is the case at Ghost Ranch, the Abiquiú property sits atop a hill that overlooks a vast, level valley.  While the landscape at Ghost Ranch exudes an atmosphere of enclosure and boundedness, the most striking feature of the views at Abiquiú is the sprawling spaciousness of the valley that sits below it.  Despite the opposing spatial qualities of the properties, each stimulated Miss O’Keeffe’s creativity in equal measures.

While the colorful and formally unique features of Ghost Ranch prompted paintings that embody Miss O’Keeffe’s most compelling studies of shadow and color, the views at Abiquiú inspired her to conduct innovative experiments with lines and shapes.  Take, for example, Miss O’Keeffe’s 1952 oil, Mesa and Road East, which is based on the eastward view of the valley below her Abiquiú home.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Mesa and Road East, 1952, oil on canvas

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Road from Abiquiú, undated, photographic print

This undated photo depicts a view from Miss O’Keeffe’s Abiquiú home, similar to the one portrayed in Mesa and Road East. 

The painting emphasizes the physically heightened perspective of the viewer through the cotton wood trees that appear tiny before him or her.  Additionally, the viewer’s line of sight is directly even with the middle portion of the mesa that occupies the right half of the painting and towers over the valley below it.  Finally, Miss O’Keeffe provides the viewer with a continuous view of the road as it curves through the valley and eventually fades into the base of the peaks in the distance.

The painting highlights the vast appearance of the valley and the contrasting presence of the large mesa that sits adjacent to it, but perhaps the most fascinating feature of the painting is the road that commands serious attention by running nearly continuously from the background through the foreground, where it occupies a noticeably wide area of the image.  The road’s traversing of the background and foreground allow it to bisect the canvas and separate the contrary visual qualities of the light, flat, and open meadows from the darkened, jagged, and towering mesa.  Ultimately, the road stands out as perhaps the most prominent feature of the painting.

Miss O’Keeffe  took great care to distinguish the shapes and lines that make up the road, and the inspiration that led her to portray it in such a way may not have been possible had she not viewed it from the aerial perspective that her Abiquiú property  provides.  Such a view would not be possible at Ghost Ranch, where her home sits at the base of the cliffs surrounding it.  Miss O’Keeffe’s interest in the shape of the road is made even more apparent in her 1963 oil Winter Road I, which abstracts the curvature of the road as a black shape imposed on a uniformly gray and white ground.  One can even observe the rising and falling of the road over “hills” in the top left corner of the canvas, where she manipulates the shape to add elements of three-dimensionality to the otherwise two dimensional, abstract plane.

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Georgia O’Keeffe, Winter Road I, 1963, oil on canvas

A  comparison of works like Mesa and Road East and Winter Road I  to Miss O’Keeffe’s landscapes from Ghost Ranch illustrates that the differing geographic features of each property inspired her in different manners, with none being any less moving or fascinating than another.  I am taking a lesson from Miss O’Keeffe in this way, as I am slowly coming to appreciate the views around Abiquiú as much as I do those around Ghost Ranch, despite their disparate qualities.

Patrick Gora, Curatorial Intern

Feature photo: Georgia O’Keeffe, Near Abiquiu, N.M. 2, 1930, oil on canvas

Mesa and Road East, Road from Abiquiú Images Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Near Abiquiú, N.M. 2 Image Copyright Metropolitan Museum of Art

Winter Road I Image Copyright National Gallery of Art