We all know about Georgia O’Keeffe’s ephemeral, expressionist paintings of the American Southwest, especially her radiant florals with their delicate, enveloping lines and vivid colors. They’re even more intoxicating in person, often smaller that you might imagine, with the paint almost shimmering on the canvas. But what about the woman? What was she like, and why is she such an important figure in American art history? Or rather, American history?
Two new exhibits launched in February at Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe—the only U.S. museum dedicated to a single woman—are helping answer those questions.
Georgia O’Keeffe lived from 1887 to 1986. She was married to the famous photographer Alfred Steiglitz in New York, but she spent much of her time living and painting in New Mexico, where she fell in love with the severity and drama of the open landscape.
The new museum exhibit “Georgia O’Keeffe: Abiquiu Views” provides insight into O’Keeffe’s daily lifestyle in New Mexico. Abiquiu is a tiny town 53 miles northwest of Santa Fe where O’Keeffe owned a modest Pueblo Revival house. Part of her home studio has been recreated in the museum with photos, furniture and artist materials owned by O’Keeffe.
“We’ve tried to recreate her studio and her home in Abiquiu so we actually have her brushes, a table that she built to paint on, and we use photographs that document those items,” says Debbie Brient, the newly hired director of museum advancement at Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. “So we’re very fortunate to be able to incorporate that dimension of O’Keeffe’s life to make it that much more real for people.”
The museum also hosts group tours out to O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, which it owns, where you can look over the same landscape captured in paintings hanging in galleries worldwide.
The second new exhibit is “Georgia O’Keeffe & Ansel Adams: the Hawaii Pictures,” showcasing paintings by O’Keeffe and photos by iconic photographer Ansel Adams. O’Keeffe visited the islands to paint imagery for a Dole Pineapple advertising campaign.
“It’s curated by the curator from the Honolulu Museum of Art,” says Brient. “To see O’Keeffe’s and Adam Ansel’s work together and know they were friends, despite the fact that they both worked in different media, it’s a beautiful comparison and contrast about how they were both inspired by nature, and how they’re both interpreting their response.”
We spoke at length with Brient to learn more about the ongoing legacy of one of America’s most influential artists.
Prevue: Debbie, can you tell us a little about your role at the museum?
Debbie Brient: My role is to gain support from individuals, corporations and foundations that will help the museum to reach its strategic goals and vision of becoming a model for a 21st century museum. It’s about making the museum even more relevant, as much as it is dynamic, and resonating to a broad constituency of people in terms of themes and ideas that are important to us today.
Prevue: Why is Georgia O’Keeffe still so relevant today?
Debbie Brient: The reasons are many, and will continue to remain relevant far into the future, if not more relevant. First of all, she became a celebrity in her own time. Her artwork was selling for unheard of prices when she was still a relatively young woman. And being married to Alfred Steiglitz in New York, they were a couple that people recognized on the street. They were literally celebrities in their own time.
Yet she chose to leave one of the greatest cities in the world and a lifestyle of celebrity and come to one of the most remote areas of the country. And I think even today if someone said they were moving to Abiquiu, New Mexico, most people wouldn’t know where that is. And when they found out they would say, “Why?”
She was a woman too who we have to realize was born in the Victorian era yet she chose to have a profession, which was initially teaching art. And then ultimately she became a very self-reliant woman when her art was able to provide a living for her. So during a very conservative time, she chose her own path toward self-reliance in the middle of a remote area. That’s exciting to think about the strength and centeredness that she exhibited. It’s inspirational to me and I think it is to a lot of people.
Prevue: How is Georgia O’Keeffe considered a Modernist painter?
Debbie Brient: I’m not a scholar but what I’ve learned as a layperson is that she was fully capable of painting a beautiful protrait of someone that was very realistic. She won prizes for still life that she painted. She could do that but she felt empty when she did it, because she was looking for a way to make her art express what she felt. Not just what she was seeing, but what she felt. So this was a departure that artists were seeking from traditional art up until that point. So if you look at in that context, she was very much a Modernist.
When you learn about O’Keeffe, so many of her most famous works are landscapes looking out her bedroom window, or from her terrace. She like many artists would paint the same scene or object over and over again. And so it’s interesting to see how she progressed until she got it to a point where she left that subject because she felt she had finally captured it the way she wanted to.
Prevue: What was life like for Georgia O’Keeffe in Abiquiu?
Debbie Brient: She chose to live very minimally even though she could have afforded to live extravagantly. And when you visit her house in Abiquiu, you can see that she valued quality. The things she had that she chose to purchase were of very high quality, yet they were very few, and sometimes she even made her own simple plywood tables in her studio. She was finding happiness living very simply.
She also was an avid gardener and she tried to grow as much food as she could with the help of others that worked for her. That was important to her.
One of the great stories I learned the last time I visited Abiquiu was that she insisted that her laundry be dried outside on clotheslines because she loved the smell of clothes dried in the sun. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced that but it’s so nice to sleep on sheets that have been dried in the wind.
And then most of all, her interpretation of the natural world has inspired so many people to seek out peace and solace in nature, much the same way that she did. So I think her art and lifestyle have contributed to a better understanding of how nature inspires and renews the human spirit.