Traveling with Georgia O'Keeffe

Interview with the curator of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum


Where About Now Can you tell us about yourself and your role within the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico?

Ariel Plotek I am the Museum’s Curator of Fine Art, part of a team of curators (including a Curator of Education and a Curator of Digital Experience) that helps set the program for the museum in Santa Fe, and the historic home and studio in Abiquiú (about one hour’s drive from Santa Fe).

Image by Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Image by Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

WAN As we know, Georgia O’Keeffe traveled extensively. Does one see that in the museum and in her house?

AP Yes, we do see evidence of O’Keeffe’s extensive travels, both in the Museum at the Abiquiú Home and Studio. During the 1920s and 30s, O’Keeffe made trips to York Beach in Maine, Yosemite National Park in California, and even ventured as far as Hawaii. In the 1950s, after the death of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, she began to travel internationally. There is an installation in the Museum (currently closed to visitors) that focuses on these travels, with sketches and paintings made in Hawaii, Peru, and Japan. The Museum also holds, in its archives, photographs of O’Keeffe’s travels, including pictures taken by Ansel Adams and Todd Webb, alongside what O’Keeffe called her “travel boxes“—collections of souvenirs and ephemera from her favorite trips.

Image by Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Image by Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

WAN Before she moved to New Mexico, Georgia O'Keeffe traveled often between New York and her future home. What must that commute have been like at the beginning of the 20th century and do we see the differences of metropolis and desert in her works at the time?

AP The journey between New York and New Mexico would have been days long, and undertaken mainly by train, although O’Keeffe did learn to drive a car of her own in Taos, New Mexico, in 1929.

We do indeed see O’Keeffe‘s subjects change as she begins dividing her time between New York and Northern New Mexico. In the summer of 1929 she sketches and paints the New Mexico landscape and buildings such as the church at Rancho de Taos. She also returns to New York with a barrel full of bones, so that some of her early southwestern subjects were actually painted in her studio in the city. Though one might be tempted to say that her urban views are more vertical overall than the wide-open desert landscapes, one of her first paintings in New Mexico is of a tall tree—framed much like one of her earlier skyscraper paintings.

WAN In New York Georgia O‘Keeffe lived with her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, in a skyscraper: the Shelton Hotel. What do we know about this time in her life in regards to this accommodation?

AP We know, from photographs, that O’Keeffe and Stieglitz’s apartment on the 30th floor of the Shelton Hotel was very simply furnished. This was a residential hotel—the tallest in the city at the time—and O’Keeffe decorated the rooms in which they lived with white linen curtains and slipcovers for the furniture, much as she would later do in her New Mexico homes. Both O‘Keeffe and Stieglitz recorded the view from their high perch (she in sketeches and paintings, he in photographs), and O’Keeffe also painted the Shelton seen from the street, much as she would do with another residential hotel: the Ritz Tower.

WAN Georgia O'Keeffe had also seen a lot of the desert and visited different places with her mobile studio (aka her car). Can you tell us what fascinated her so much about these landscapes?

AP In O’Keeffe’s own words: “When I got to New Mexico, 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. It’s something that’s in the air—it’s different. The sky is different, the wind is different. I shouldn’t say too much about it, because other people may be interested, and I don’t want them interested.“

Image by Georgia O'Keeffe Museum
Image by Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

WAN Many of her late works depict perspectives from a plane. Can you describe that work cycle in more detail?

AP It is useful, here, to think back to O’Keeffe’s earlier sketches and paintings from a great height: the 30th floor of the Shelton Hotel. O’Keeffe was always seeking new perspectives, new ways of seeing. When she began, in the 1950s, to travel by air, she saw things in a new way: looking down upon the clouds from the window of a plane. This inspired a whole series of works, some of which are in the O’Keeffe Museum’s collection. The largest painting in this series, Sky Above Clouds IV, hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago.

Image by Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

WAN What awaits visitors in the museum and in her home?

AP Due to the current crisis, both the museum in Santa Fe and the home and studio in Abiquiú are closed to visitors for the time being. When these re-open, visitors to Abiquiú will have the opportunity to book a tour of O’Keeffe’s home, studio, and garden, preserved much as they were at the end of the artist’s life.

At the museum in Santa Fe, visitors will be treated to three special installations. The first, already mentioned, focuses on O’Keeffe’s travels. The second, featuring numerous bones, stones, and shells, from the Museum’s archives presents these alongside the paintings they inspired. The third, an interactive digital presentation, explores O’Keeffe’s ways of framing her compositions together with a “slow looking“ exercise. In the meantime, there is much to be learned about both the Museum and the Home and Studio by visiting our social media feeds and website.

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