September 27, 2022
This time, I knew to reserve tickets months in advance for a guided tour of Georgia O’Keefe’s home and studio in Abiqui, New Mexico, about an hour northwest of Santa Fe. I arrived at noon on August 30, eager to learn what I could about the famous artist. But first, clouds and an adobe wall.
Not the same wall, not the same cloud. And yet seeing his house evokes a rush of recognition when looking at his paintings again.
Abiquay O’Keefe’s house was his winter home. During the summer he moved to Ghost Ranch, 12 miles away. “Although breathtakingly situated,” the O’Keefe Museum explains, “O’Keefe’s Ghost Ranch home was not suitable for his year-round residence. O’Keefe purchased a larger home, in the village of Abiquiu, with its well-watered gardens and winter comforts. Either for him. A well irrigated garden – a worthy dream! He lived here from 1949 to 1984.
Our guide first took us to the backyard, where the bleached horns of an old stump recall O’Keeffe’s antler and bone paintings.
We saw large gardens, where rows of vegetables and fruit trees once provided most of the food for her kitchen.
An aquikia still supplies water to the garden.
A large picture window peeks into O’Keefe’s modernist living room, where a healthy jade plant enjoys the light. A deep window to the stone line in his collection. We’ll visit the interior later, but this room is off limits to visitors to protect its fragile adobe floor.
A narrow passage leads from the garden to an inner courtyard or patio as O’Keeffe calls it.
Bundled corn adorns a wall.
The passage can be seen from inside the yard
Straight ahead, other doors offer access to the rambling adobe house. “The oldest rooms in the house were probably built in 1744. The house was expanded in the 19th century in the Pueblo-style. adobe (mud brick) hacienda, with rows of houses organized around a common open space, or small squareThe museum’s website explains. The place was dilapidated when O’Keefe bought it, and he spent several years restoring it from the ground up.
In the patio courtyard, a dark door (left) enchanted the artist – a door he would end up painting again and again. “As I climbed up and walked toward the ruins,” O’Keefe recalled, according to the website, “I found a very nice room and a patio with buckets to collect water. It was a good sized courtyard with a long wall with a door on one side. I should have had that wall with the door.’
Our guide pulled out a laminated reproduction of O’Keefe Courtyard II To show us how the artist abstracted the doors and walls.
…for it hangs at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, where we will see it the next day.
Just beyond the wall through the doorway, a portal decorated with a deer skull and antlers, pottery, and many other stones from O’Keeffe leads out from the courtyard through a wooden door.
A partial bighorn sheep skull balances on a stone atop a post.
Mud on an adobe wall, a little face peeks out.
We entered another courtyard, where the drive door was open.
If you exit through that gate, this is the view you come back from.
Now we were invited inside, into the kitchen. Storage niches have been carved into the adobe walls.
My gaze was drawn from a kitchen window to a low wall and a view-blocking juniper and small tree. I asked if the garden was as it was in O’Keefe’s time and was told yes. Times change, don’t they? I’m kind of surprised that O’Keefe didn’t prefer elegant and compact native plants to such over-pruned, out-of-place shrubs.
From the kitchen we can see two off-limits rooms, both with adobe clay floors. I can’t remember what this room was used for. Perhaps herb-drying and storage?
The other off-limits space begins in a simple dining room with a paper Isamu Noguchi light that he gifted to O’Keefe.
Off the dining room you’ll find the modernist living room, with its large picture windows and skylights. Adobe runs across the floor.
A cascading fern and copper kettle in the window light
The living room, with a view of an ancient tamarind tree – how I wanted to step into this space and look around.
Outside, where potted plants casually lean over piles of trees
Next we saw O’Keeffe’s winter studio, a large, white room with a large picture window that immediately draws the eye.
The window makes you feel a part of the northern New Mexico landscape.
Cattle horns rest gracefully on a deep window.
In a corner by the window, a studio bed with a spartan coverlet overlooks the epic view.
Another window, curtained, offers a narrow slice of chaparral.
Feathers tied to the wall
Outside, more of O’Keefe’s rock collection adorns a flat rock that points like an arrow to a distant mountain.
A corner window in O’Keefe’s nun-like bedroom (not open to visitors) offers a ghostly view of the lamp with its white bed and reflective red cliffs and green chaparral.
O’Keefe’s house crouches on the edge of a steep mesa, overlooking a green valley below.
Just below the house, a curving, two-lane road slices through the trees before tapering around another hill. O’Keeffe wrote about this road and painted it:
“My room in Abiquiu House has two walls of glass and from one window I can see the streets of Española, Santa Fe and the world. The road mesmerizes me with its ups and downs and finally its wide sweep as it winds its way to my mountaintop wall to pass me. I took two or three pictures of it with the camera. For one of them I turned the camera at a sharp angle to get all the roads. It was accidental that I thought of the road as standing in the air, but it made me happy and I started drawing and painting it as a new shape. The trees and the mesa beside it were unimportant to that painting—it was just the road.”
The places O’Keeffe saw on a daily basis, which he studied and tried to capture again and again in his paintings, gave me new insights into his work. Now I could see his paintings everywhere, even in the parking lot behind the visitor center, where this huge, hairy cottonwood stretched its limbs toward the sky.
Next up: O’Keefe’s painting of the Taos Adobe Church and the vertigo-inducing Rio Grande Gorge Bridge just north of Taos. For a look back at Santa Fe’s colorful galleries and museums of art and architecture, click here.
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