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Deep in O'Keeffe country
Posted on: Friday, July 22, 2016 Category: Cultures
In the badlands of northern New Mexico, deep in America's Southwest, you stock up when you can. An hour north of Santa Fe on US Highway 84 there's a filling station, general store and diner called Bode's that sells everything from raccoon traps to pickling jars and claims to have served 'travelers, hunters, pilgrims, stray artists and bandits since 1893.' One of the 'stray artists' was that giant of Modernist painting, Georgia O'Keeffe, who lived a short distance away and came here to 'gas up' on her forays into the transcendant desert landscapes she called 'the Far Away'.

In the 1930s O'Keeffe had a Model A Ford that she customised into a mobile studio. 'I used to get right up in the morning and start out and stay out all day,' she wrote; 'the windows were large enough so ... I could use a great big canvas.' Many of those great big canvases - of layered limestone cliffs, flat-topped mountains, rock chimneys, and the transformative play of light across them - have now made the journey from Far Away to Bankside in London, along with her enigmatic representations of flowers and animal bones.

Tate Modern's Georgia O'Keeffe retrospective, which opens next Wednesday [ie July 6], is 'absolutely the most important international show that's happened yet for O'Keeffe,' according to Cody Hartley, the director of curatorial affairs at the O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. The show aims to challenge some assumptions about a painter whose Jimson Weed/White Flower No.1 was sold in 2014 for $44.4 million, a record for a female artist (naysaying the critics she said the flowers in her paintings weren't about eroticism nor the bones about death). But exhibition visitors will still be missing half the picture of this visionary artist and personality who was one of the 20th century's most significant pioneers and exponents of Modernism.

For as Cody Hartley told me, 'The museums and galleries are important of course but we really want people to see the landscapes. There's almost nowhere else in the world where you can see the artist's life and work in such a holistic way.' This was the idea behind my recent visit to northern New Mexico - to view this 'Land of Enchantment', as it was taglined in the post war years, through O'Keeffe's singular eye.

Georgia O'Keeffe - born in the American Midwest in 1887 - first visited the area in 1917 and returned in 1929 when she joined Mabel Dodge Luhan's racy artists' circle in Taos, 70 miles north-east of Santa Fe. In 1934 she discovered a place between the two towns called Ghost Ranch, a parcel of land abutting colourful cliffs of red, ochre and yellow, with views south to the Cerro Pedernal - a distinctively flint-edged peak that in this part of New Mexico seems to follow you across miles of desert like the eyes of a portrait.

She started spending summers at Ghost Ranch and in 1940 bought a house on the land with views of those cliffs (known as the 'painted desert') in front and Pedernal behind. These two distinct topographies inspired a vast outpouring of work over subsequent decades (Pedernal alone she painted 27 times). 'I feel at home here - I feel quiet - my skin feels close to the earth when I walk out into the red hills,' she wrote.

These days Ghost Ranch is an educational centre and retreat owned by the Presbyterian Church but it acknowledges its connections to the non-religious O'Keeffe by offering tours of the sites she painted (the house itself is off-limits but you can see its low adobe walls behind a wooden coyote fence). I was driven out into O'Keeffe country by the marketing director of Ghost Ranch, Linda Seebantz, who had a set of laminated reproductions of some of the work O'Keeffe did here. 'She didn't paint the obvious,' said Seebantz. 'We're still finding some of her painting sites because they are so innocuous and humble.'

As she drove a dirt road parallel to the 'painted desert' Seebantz kept one eye on the angles and braked as the subject of a work slid into alignment - Gerald's Tree I, 1937, for instance, a depiction of a fossilised cedar, beneath which the writer and mystic Gerald Heard once danced, against a background of red cliffs. Meanwhile to the south, a storm was brewing over Pedernal, recolouring it in dark purples much as O'Keeffe did with her pigment.

The rain held off for my visit to another location with which she felt a strong affinity. She called it the White Place, a canyon flanked by concrete-grey cliffs and pinnacles with a melted gothic look. It is reached by a turning off Highway 84 but few people go there, partly because there is no signpost (the only marker is a small blue sign that says 'Rio Arriba County 0155'). But it's worth making the effort, not just to see the extraordinary rock formations but in order to understand something of how she worked in the field. As I hiked the dry river bed between the heat-reflecting rocks I felt intrepid Georgia pacing alongside, in her loose, monochromatic clothes, with her unsentimental, Modernist eye for shape and colour and her disregard for physical hardship.

In 1945 she bought a second home in the area - at Abiquiu, near the White Place and Bode's general store - and began to divide her time between it and Ghost Ranch. This home, the studio it incorporates and its acre of gardens, watered by an ancient and sacred irrigation system known as an acequia, are owned by the O'Keeffe Museum and can be visited on guided tours. I was lucky enough to have as my guide the director of the property, Agapita Lopez, who knew O'Keeffe and indeed became her companion when O'Keeffe turned 87 (the painter died in Santa Fe in 1986 at the age of 98).

The house itself - with thick adobe walls and log-and-stick ceilings - is simply and elegantly decorated, and has a cool, contemplative atmosphere ('Zen-like,' was Lopez's description). Two of the walls of her bedroom are made of glass and have views of cottonwood trees along the Chama River - which she painted - and US 84 (more paintings) climbing beyond them to 'Española, Santa Fe and the world'.

Lopez reveres her former mistress. 'I was very shy and she wasn't a big talker so we got along very well,' she said, rejecting the image of the stern, ascetic loner you often see in photographs and commending her life and work as an inspiration, especially for young women. 'She knew her wealth but it was about what you need,' said Lopez. 'Her taste was simple and elegant, it never went out of style. There's a lot to learn.'

Another person who knew her is the renowned chef and restaurateur John Rivera Sedlar, whom I met the next day in his Santa Fe restaurant, Eloisa. Sedlar's family is from Abiquiu and his great aunt cooked for O'Keeffe for 15 years, at both Ghost Ranch and the Abiquiu house. He admitted she could be 'mischievous' and 'cranky' but remembered her also as a sociable person who held dinner parties for smart people like Andy Warhol and Joni Mitchell. 'There's a lot of no-nonsense women in New Mexico and Georgia O'Keeffe was one of them,' he said.

Sedlar is a particular admirer of her commitment to growing her own food and eating healthily - she was ahead of her time in this as in many things - and in tribute has created an extraordinary Georgia O'Keeffe dinner menu at Eloisa. Not only does it incorporate ingredients that she used - veg and fruit she grew herself, her own vinaigrette recipe - but it's all served with dramatic touches (one course arrives on a cow's skull, referencing her bone paintings) that raise the evening to the level of performance art.

O'Keeffe was drawn to the sequestered Southwest by something in the air. 'The country seems to call one in a way that one has to answer it,' she wrote. Others have felt that pull - Santa Fe struck me as one of those places that draws in people who are looking for something more (for want of a better word) spiritual than the workaday modern world can generally supply. Dating from the Spanish colonial era and boasting the oldest public building in the US (the Palace of the Governors) and one of the oldest churches (the San Miguel Chapel), it's a gorgeous little town, of soft-cornered, low-rise, adobe buildings, with a tree-shaded plaza and wooden colonnades, funky galleries, critically acclaimed restaurants and outré therapies - not to mention the world-class O'Keeffe Museum.

The people who have made it their home, perhaps not believing their luck, say they feel a kind of forcefield of good energy here that transcends the everyday and when you look at O'Keeffe's work who's to say they're not on to something?

Published in the Sunday Telegraph on July 3, 2016

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