On a road trip across America last year, I made a stop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and thus had the chance to visit the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Though I’d already known something of the influential American painter’s life and work, I hadn’t understood the depth of her connection to, and the extent of the inspiration she drew from, the American Southwest. “This is O’Keeffe country,” says Gene Hackman, narrator of the thirteen-minute documentary Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life in Art that screens perpetually at the museum but which you can also watch just above, “a land the painter made indelibly her own. Northern New Mexico transformed the artist’s work and changed her life.”
“As soon as I saw it, that was my country,” says the artist herself. “I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. There’s something in the air; it’s just different. The sky is different, the stars are different, the wind is different.”
I have to agree with her; my own great American road trip showed me not only that the states really do look different from each other, but that New Mexico — which at first struck me as a Krazy Kat landscape come to life — looks most different of all. O’Keeffe first went to New Mexico for a year and a half in 1929, in her early forties, and returned each year over the next two decades, moving there permanently in 1949 and dying in Santa Fe in 1986, at the age of 98.
Though she remains best known in art history for her paintings of flowers that make their viewers see them in a way they’ve never seen flowers before, New Mexico introduced a whole new sensibility into O’Keeffe’s body of work. This holds especially true of her time at Ghost Ranch, whose location in an area called Piedra Lumbre, or “Shining Rock,” provided the painter with the strikingly colored cliffs and other almost unreal-looking natural forms that made their way into her equally sublime landscapes. “The best place in the world,” she called it, and if we can measure places by what they move human beings to create, her words hardly sound like an exaggeration.
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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.