When I was thirteen years old, I visited the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum with my parents. I still remember the moment I turned a corner and saw this:
I was stunned. I stood in awe of this artist’s magnificent representation of land and sky. I was drawn to the distant, magical space Miss O’Keeffe re-created on paper. At that moment, I realized art is not about being exact or realistic, but is instead about conveying an emotion and vision. Since then, I have been drawn to Georgia O’Keeffe’s work because she shows how art is one powerful way to express our individual experiences of this world.
This feeling and fascination grew so much that it pulled me into a world of research over the past two years about Georgia O’Keeffe’s Pedernal works. I looked at the mountain from distant Minnesota libraries, dorm rooms, and classrooms in photographs, Catalogue Raisonné images, and my own memories of when I was just a kid visiting New Mexico.
But now, I am actually here, and I get to see this undefinable, un-photographable, un-capturable mountain in person at least twice a week. It is surreal. A dream come true. Standing on the Ghost Ranch porch in between bouts of cataloging, I am in awe of this ever-changing mountain as more green trees and shrubs sprout along its sides and clouds move over and around its flat-topped peak. Yet it stands solid, a mass that has been here far longer than us and remains steadfast between two spaces, a bridge between two worlds – the near and the far.
As I look at the mountain, I reflect on my research about Miss O’Keeffe’s journey with the landscape and think about her many representations of the space. I explored how the Pedernal became a space that helped Miss O’Keeffe connect the near and the far and brought her closer to the unknown distance that she spent much of her life exploring through artwork. She explained this when she said,
“Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant, there is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing – and keeping the unknown always beyond you. Catching, crystalizing your simpler clearer vision of life – only to see it turn stale compared to what you vaguely feel ahead – that you must always keep working to grasp.”
-Georgia O’Keeffe, 1924
(quoted in Robinson 56)
One way I see Miss O’Keeffe working to grasp this unknown is through her process of iteration in art. She did this with flowers, bones, shells, and in this case, the Pedernal. She rendered the Cerro Pedernal at least twenty-nine times in her life, predominantly between 1936 and 1958. In fact, it sounds like Miss O’Keeffe even made a deal:
“It is my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
(quoted in Abrams 97)
O’Keeffe’s numerous interpretations of the same space can now be likened to meditations, journal entries, and personal reflections that give viewers insight into her gradual understanding of this mountain as an influential space in her life. In his work, Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality, theologian Belden Lane comments:
“One begins to suspect that the contemplation of any ordinary thing, made extraordinary by attention and love, can become an occasion for glimpsing the profound.”
The collection of Pedernal works shows how Miss O’Keeffe’s continual return and intentional attention to this space revealed a greater understanding of how this mountain fit into her life. Though she depicted the Pedernal at least twenty-nine times, it is unlikely that she began painting it with the intention to make a series or the knowledge of how her relationship with this mountain would evolve over time. What seems more likely is that, upon moving to Ghost Ranch in 1936, the Pedernal was simply a convenient subject to paint. It sat in her backyard, a mere twelve miles away from her home at Rancho de los Burros:
The mountain was distant, but stood boldly in the flat desert landscape. This distance was something that mesmerized Miss O’Keeffe, even from her early days in Texas, and continually drew her back to the land of New Mexico. She once said, “the distance has always been calling me,” indicating its strength and ability to pull her to an area (O’Keeffe n.p.). She even gave this distance her own term: “the Far Away.” When speaking of the Black Place in New Mexico, another area that captivated her attention, O’Keeffe stated,
“Such a beautiful, untouched, lonely-feeling place – part of what I call the Far Away.”
Miss O’Keeffe shows this distance in her first Pedernal work, Deer’s Skull with Pedernal, in which she paints the mountain on the horizon behind the main subject of the deer’s skull, a subject Miss O’Keeffe had already been rendering for five years.
In this work, the main subject is not the mountain, but is instead the skull that divides the canvas in half. However, Miss O’Keeffe still draws our attention to the Pedernal by using the branch to lead our eye from the skull to the peak. It is as if this is Miss O’Keeffe’s way of introducing herself to a new, unknown space through a familiar form.
But this distance changed as Miss O’Keeffe progressed through the Pedernal works and her confidence grew in rendering the land. The mountain soon became the main subject of the work both in image, title, and abstraction. She switched her titles from Deer’s Skull with Pedernal (1936) and Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds (1936) to Pedernal with Red Hills (1936) and eventually just Pedernal, indicative of her shift in focus to the mountain as the main subject.
She also moved to abstract our view of this mountain both in Pedernal:
and in From the Ranch -1 in the way she composed the space. Similar to her pelvis works, she used a bone in From the Ranch -1 to frame the peak:
This makes us see the most “Far Away” portion of the mountain, its peak, through an object of the nearby, a bone. Though this is likely a pelvis bone, the image also compels us to see an eye socket. If this is the case, then the viewer and the artist view the most distant portion of the mountain from one of the innermost, nearest perspectives: the inside of a skull. The combination brings the distant “Far Away” and nearby together into one cohesive work.
It appears that by the last work in the series, the Pedernal had become a connection between the “Far Away” and the nearby that could lead the artist to even more distant unknowns. In Ladder to the Moon, Miss O’Keeffe goes beyond the mountain and away into the sky:
The ladder sits between the minuscule, distant, deep blue Pedernal and the infinite expanse of sky and moon. O’Keeffe explained,
“At the Ranch house there is a strong handmade ladder to the roof. . . . One evening I was waiting for a friend and stood leaning against the ladder looking at the long dark line of the Pedernal. The sky was a pale greenish blue, the high moon looking white in the evening sky. Painting the ladder had been in my mind for a long time and there it was – with the dark Pedernal and the high white moon – all ready to be put down the next day.”
(quoted in Robinson 495)
It appears that by this time in her journey with the Pedernal, Miss O’Keeffe was ready to move on to new frontiers and explore new unknowns. Biographer Roxana Robinson describes this transition:
“The images are all of transition: the ladder itself implies passage from one level to another; the moon is cut neatly in half by the bold slicing light, halfway between full and new; and the evening sky is in flux, still pale along the line of the horizon, shading into deep azure night at the top of the canvas. It is not difficult to read this painting as a self-portrait: the light, hopeful form of the ladder, balanced, serene, and radiant, is poised between the vanishing glow of earthly day and the rich blue of the heavens; O’Keeffe was seventy-one when she painted it.”
As Robinson states, this work can be read as a self-portrait. It is probable that the ladder, with all of its layered meaning, represents Miss O’Keeffe herself between the Pedernal she has come to understand and the further distance she has yet to explore. In this way, O’Keeffe shows herself connected to both the nearby and the distance, floating between the two, beyond the mountain on the land and at the edge of exploration of the “Far Away” sky. By making her own personal connection with the Pedernal over time, O’Keeffe was free to exist between the near and the far.
At the end of her life in 1986, O’Keeffe’s body was cremated by her request and her ashes scattered on top of the Pedernal. In her book, Georgia O’Keeffe, A Private Friendship, Part II: Walking the Abiquiu and Ghost Ranch Land, Nancy Hopkins Reily describes the scene:
“The windy force of Nature forcefully grabbed her ashes and mixed them with the dry dust of Cerro Pedernal. Georgia became a part of the mountain and the mountain silence held her ashes.”
As I step outside to admire the Pedernal this summer, I am silenced. The mountain quiets all of these thoughts and interpretations as I stare at its intriguing flat-topped peak and dark blue-green hues.
My search for meaning disappears and I think of Miss O’Keeffe’s comment about the remarks “the men” of her time were making about Cézanne’s use of form and color:
“When I finally got to Cézanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire . . . I remember sitting there thinking, ‘How could they attach all those analytical remarks to anything he did with the mountain? All those words piled up on top of that poor little mountain seemed too much.'”
(quoted in Stevens 77)
And maybe that’s just it. Perhaps Miss O’Keeffe was embedding messages into her art and exploring her own personal understandings of the space. But maybe all of these interpretations and analytical searches for “one true meaning” are too much for the poor Pedernal to handle.
When we take a break from analyzing what an artist is trying to say or communicate and remove ourselves from the search for secret messages hidden in layers of paint, we can be in the moment, take in our surroundings, and realize that maybe, just maybe, Miss O’Keeffe was purely capturing exactly what she saw, meanings removed, interpretations aside, to, quite simply, show us the land in a beautiful way.
Liz Brindley, Curatorial Intern
Abrams, Georgia O’Keeffe: Artist. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009. Print.
Lane, Belden. Landscapes of the Sacred: Geography and Narrative in American Spirituality. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2002. Print.
O’Keeffe, Georgia. Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: Viking Press, 1976. Print.
Robinson, Roxana. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1989. Print.
Stevens, Mark. “The Gift of Spiritual Intensity.” Newsweek. March 17, 1986. Print.
Georgia O’Keeffe | Pedernal | 1945 | pastel on paper | 21 1/2 x 43 1/4 inches | Georgia O’Keeffe Museum | Gift of The Burnett Foundation | copyright 1987, Private Collection