Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) first visited New Mexico—“where nothingness” was “several sizes larger”—in the summer of 1917. Though it was a brief visit, what she saw and experienced was so stimulating that she reported: “from then on, I was always on my way back.” In a 1937 letter to her then husband, Alfred Stieglitz, O’Keeffe shared that the trips to New Mexico had moved her so much it felt like they washed the slate clean of NY as well as the past. There was something about the boundless emptiness of the high deserts, the crippling effects of the mountains, the crisp air, the way the light created magnificent color palettes, the Puebloan communities, and the topography of New Mexico that seemed to offer her a space to address aspects of her interiority.
In 1940, O’Keeffe decided to purchase a small piece of land within Ghost Ranch (or the tail end of the earth, as she would call it), located about 15 miles north of the village of Abiquiu.
This past June, I was able to experience the complex impact the landscapes of New Mexico exert on visitors and residents alike as I attended the seventh annual Symposium of the Architecture, Culture, and Spirituality group, which took place at the retreat center within Ghost Ranch. The central theme of this year’s meeting explored how experiences of nature and the quotidian have been interpreted as having spiritual meaning and how architects, designers, and visual artists could help facilitate such experiences in built and lived environments. The Ghost Ranch retreat center was a most fitting location for such reflections. It is surrounded by national forests, mesas, landscapes, and many Puebloan communities—the precise visual vocabulary that made up O’Keeffe prolific oeuvre.
Rina Swentzell, one of the keynote speakers, renown artist, author, and scholar on Puebloan culture, spoke about the meaning, symbolism, and kindred relationship Native American populations of the region have had with both the constructed and natural environments. Throughout the symposia, participants were challenged to critically reflect on how environments are engaged, modified—and often times abused—so as to envision ways of allowing them to flourish in equilibrium. The stunning backdrops of Ghost Ranch were quiet susurrus that functioned as reminders we must continually recalibrate our vision and transform the relationships we develop with our everyday landscapes.
Although O’Keeffe herself did not speak of her experience in the Southwest in explicit spiritual terms, her paintings do point to the mysterious, transcendent, and wondrous dualities of nature—life and death, vastness and immediacy, form and void, serenity and drama. Her flowers, grand vistas, mountains, clouds, bleached bones against the crisp blue skies, skulls, crosses, and churches could be interpreted as aesthetic efforts not only to make her interior life manifest, but could also function as ways of narrating the human experience—with all the possibilities for sorrow and delight.
There is something to be learned from the evocative tensions the high desert of New Mexico creates. It appears to be both dead and alive, bare and abundant, untouchable and and immediately within. The current exhibition at CARE’s Doug Adams Gallery, The Erosion of Memory: Works by Anne Tait, invites similar reflections on the dualities of life and death and the potential that exists in our progression from womb to tomb, so to speak. Like O’Keeffe’s work, Anne Tait’s artworks also invite thoughts on themes of temporality, finitude, memory, and the quotidian.