O’Keeffe country is the slice of New Mexico northwest of Santa Fe where the painter Georgia O’Keeffe lived and worked from 1949 until her death in 1986.
“When I got to New Mexico,” she wrote, “that was mine. As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly.”
I discovered O’Keeffe at an exhibition at the Tate in London in 2016. She painted like no other artist I had ever seen. Starry skies, desert crosses, city canyons, flowers unfolding – she saw the world in a way no one else has ever seen it. Everyday objects that were familiar, even banal, became infused with magic. It felt as though I was crossing the frontier into another country.
In August 2018, I get the chance to see her country for myself. My friend Kathy and I fly to Albuquerque and rent a car.
After a late lunch of margaritas and quesadillas at a place called El Pinto on the outskirts of town, we head north to Santa Fe. The landscape is rocky and the houses are poor. Indian-run casinos are advertised along the road.
Our Airbnb is located in a development called Pueblo del Cielo a few miles out of town. It’s an adobe house furnished in a style I can only call Southwestern Gothic. Lots of local rugs and stylized animal heads, plenty of leather and marble.
On first sight it’s daunting, but by the end of the week we have grown into our surroundings and feel quite at home. The giant television screen is visible from the sitting room, the dining room, and the kitchen, which are on different levels, and this allows Kathy to watch John McCain’s funeral and keep up with Rachel Maddow as we potter round the house and do our laundry.
Outside there’s a barbecue, a shady patio, and a collective swimming pool. The house is set amid Mediterranean-type vegetation. The air smells wonderful. If it wasn’t for the deer heads, I could imagine I was back in Provence in the garrigue.
Santa Fe is a nice little town, founded by the Spaniards around 1610. It’s laid out in a grid around a central plaza, and the best thing about it is the absence of high-rise buildings. By order of the city fathers, all constructions must be in adobe or Spanish colonial. The air is hot and dry, and cool at night. After the torrid humid East Coast, it’s a relief. All my little aches and pains dissolve like magic in the dry desert air.
One side of Santa Fe’s main plaza is occupied by the Palace of the Governors, which is closed for renovation, but we visit the adjacent history museum which recounts the history of New Mexico from the Indians to the Spaniards to the Mexicans (in the days when Mexico was twice the size of the United States) to the Cowboys to the Nuclear Scientists. Los Alamos is just down the road. The museum describes the subterfuges used to conceal the site and its employees from the population at large. The office that handled the nuclear influx was located on East Palace Avenue, and Robert Redford is apparently working on a project called 109 East Palace, about Oppenheimer and his acolytes. Might be fun.
Back in the plaza, some little girls give a demonstration of Indian hoop dancing. A few tourists look on, and an elderly man sings a very monotonous song. Just off the square stands the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis, built in 1869 by a French bishop from the Auvergne. It’s a modest Romanesque church with a seventeenth-century statue of the Madonna and a reredos dating from 1986.
An obliging churchwarden explains that the Madonna was carried into battle by the conquistadores fighting the Indians, and that the gold background to the saints’ portraits on the reredos implies that there are better things to come in the afterlife.
The cathedral, he tells us, is French Gothic. I hesitate to query this since he’s such a nice man, but of course I can’t keep my mouth shut, so I mumble something about Romanesque on the way out. He just smiles sweetly and says that’s what they tell him to say, and it will be our little secret. Okay.
Time to shop. Santa Fe is tourist paradise. All the streets in the centre (and I do mean all) are lined with stores selling Indian silver jewelry, Indian woven rugs, Indian knick-knacks and so on. Sadly the silver earrings are far too expensive, but our attention is caught by a Zeitgeist T-shirt featuring a picture of Indians with rifles and the legend: Homeland Security: Fighting Terrorism Since 1492.
The afternoon ends with a terrifying turquoise margarita in a terrifying turquoise bar called the Coyote, reached from the street by an industrial-style elevator. The drinks are so strong that we both give up halfway through. Kathy has to drive us back to the Pueblo del Cielo, and I’ve got mild altitude sickness. Santa Fe is at 9000 feet – a fact that my guidebook did not see fit to mention.
As the sun goes down, the air grows cooler. We barbecue succulent strip steaks purchased from a high-end market in Santa Fe, and chat to our neighbours, Lloyd and Roxy, who moved here from Texas just two months ago. They are among the very few permanent residents of Heaven’s Village. Most of the houses are second homes or Airbnbs, or both. Lloyd and Roxy are having friends in from Dallas for a party on Sunday night, and we’re invited to drop by. New Mexico bills itself as the Land of Enchantment. Eating dinner on the patio, watching the light fade over the mountains, we’re not going to disagree.
Georgia O’Keeffe first came to New Mexico in 1929. She had been married for five years to Alfred Stieglitz, a famous photographer, who had organized her first exhibition in New York in 1917. Stieglitz is credited with introducing photography as an art form to the United States. Thanks to his influence and that of his artistic friends, O’Keeffe was already a well-known painter, but she was growing more and more restive with the labels his circle of male critics insisted on sticking on her art. It was “erotic,” they said, it was “feminine.”
“When people read erotic symbols into my paintings, they’re really talking about their own affairs,” commented Georgia acidly. She needed to move on in order to preserve her identity as an artist, as opposed to a ‘woman artist,’ and to allow her art to develop. New Mexico became her spiritual home. When Stieglitz died in 1946, she spent three years winding up his estate (she was apparently a shrewd businesswoman), and then moved out West for good.
Her first home in New Mexico was at a dude ranch called Ghost Ranch. Despite her distaste for the wealthy tourists who came out to “experience” the Wild West, she found the landscapes around the ranch so compelling that she bought an adobe house there in 1940. Sadly the house is not open to visitors, but we take a tour of the property with a guide who conducts us to the landscapes that inspired O’Keeffe and holds up the paintings so we can compare.
The landscapes are fantastic, tortured shapes in red sandstone – chimneys and plateaux, thrust up from the bowels of the earth – and the paintings are in different colours depending on the season and the time of day.
One mountain in particular caught Georgia’s fancy, the Pedernal, a distinctive flat-topped mesa that she painted a lot. “It’s my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.”
New Mexico has often been used as a setting for westerns, and also served for Thelma and Louise. The landscapes from the scene where the ladies are driving in the desert at night look eerily familiar. To help the atmosphere along, we play The Ballad of Lucy Jordan on the car sound system. Thankfully no traffic cops appear, because we don’t have a gun.
When Ghost Ranch was sold to Presbyterians (“churchy people,” said Georgia disdainfully), she started to look around for a place of her own and came across some disused adobe buildings in the village of Abiquiu. Climbing over a wall to look at them more closely, she was struck by a door in the wall. She knew at once that she had to have that door. After protracted negotiations, she bought the building and brought in a friend to renovate it.
More than Ghost Ranch, the house at Abiquiu brings you closer to the woman she was. Georgia knew what she wanted. The adobe house is simple but comfortable. Adobe moderates temperatures both hot and cold, but openings are usually kept as small as possible. Georgia put huge plate glass windows into the north-facing walls of her studio. Counter-intuitive, perhaps, but the view is spectacular. Her bedroom faces the same way. How wonderful to wake up every morning to those mountains, that valley, those clouds!
In front of her sitting room a gnarled tree turns in on itself, framed by another plate glass window. In the evening she used to sit on plain white couches and listen to music on a state-of-the-art stereo system. The couches are still there. The kitchen is still equipped with high-end appliances (for the time). The pantry is still stocked as she left it. The vegetable garden is still laid out the way she planned it – though now it has a live feed to the Georgia O’Keeffe museum in Santa Fe, so that visitors to the museum can see what’s happening in the garden, which I’m sure they’re all dying to do.
The Santa Fe museum hosts the largest collection of works by Georgia O’Keeffe in the world, but the space is not large, and the works on display are a little disappointing. I suspect I’ve been spoiled by the exhibition at the Tate. In the lobby I fall into conversation with a couple of tourists from New York, who suggest I take their President with me when I go back to Paris. Thanks, but no thanks.
On the Sunday before Labor Day, we drive up to Taos. In the early part of the twentieth century, Taos was home to a thriving artistic community which attracted, among others, D.H. Lawrence. The town is built round a central plaza on the same model as Santa Fe, and boasts nearly as many souvenir shops. I buy a fleece hat for cold days in Paris and a T-shirt that says Wild Thing for Nora, my new grand-daughter, age 6 months.
More intriguing is Taos Pueblo, a few miles further on, which was built in adobe around 1450 and is thought to be the earliest inhabited settlement on the American continent. Adobe is a composite material made of earth mixed with water and straw or dung – in other words, whatever came to hand. The buildings of Taos Pueblo are remarkably similar to constructions such as the Great Mosque of Djenné in Mali – also built of adobe on the edge of a desert, with projecting wooden struts to support the building.
There’s a low turquoise door in the main building which looks like something Ms. O’Keeffe would have liked. An Indian guide gives us a tour, and a sign by the parking lot informs us of the current level of fire risk.
Driving out into the desert among the clouds we cross the bridge that spans the Rio Grande and reach another kind of habitation. The Earthship is a twenty-first century new-age construction made out of recycled materials such as discarded car tires and tin cans. Hurricane-proof apparently. Water is used four times. People grow their own food. Solar energy is the norm (unlike in the Pueblo where we were told it’s against their religion).
Buildings are scattered here and there across the plain. Some of them function as Airbnbs. It looks like we’ve landed on Mars. A sign warns us that drones are prohibited.
Back in Heaven’s Village it’s party night, but it’s been a tiring day and we’re not up to making small talk to the Texans. Instead we head for the Tesuque Village Market in the hope of a margarita and some local colour.
Sadly the place is full. We spend the evening skulking unsociably on the small patio leading off the main bedroom with a bottle of wine, drunk on clouds and space and sky, watching the sun go down over the Land of Enchantment.