Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Stepping into Georgia O'Keeffe's New Mexico

We've been enjoying Georgia O'Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and Land at the DAM for two months now. Visitors and staff have been soaking up O’Keeffe’s bright color palette, exploring her favorite views of the landscape, and finding a dash of the unexpected with the incorporation of works of art from our native arts collection.

The more I have gotten to know O’Keeffe’s paintings—through docent training, tours, class lectures, and those luxurious moments of just enjoying the exhibition with my eyes—the more I have noticed an interesting pattern in her work. On the one hand, her landscape paintings speak to the expanse of the Southwest, which she explored on her many long walks and camping trips and enjoyed from the comfort of her two homes. Of her northern New Mexico surroundings she said: "Badlands roll away outside my door—hill after hill—red hills of apparently the same sort of earth that you mix with oil to make paint. All the earth colors of the painter’s palette are out there in the many miles of badlands. The light Naples yellow through the ochres—orange and red and purple earth—even the soft earth greens. You have no associations with those hills—our waste land—I think our most beautiful country."

Georgia O’Keeffe, Rust Red Hills, 1930. Oil on canvas; 16 x 30 in. Brauer Museum of Art, Valparaiso University, Indiana; Sloan Fund Purchase, 62.02. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

I make a yearly pilgrimage to New Mexico for the scenery—and for hatch chiles if the timing is right—and her words are like poetry to my ears. If you’ve ever visited Santa Fe, Taos, or the surrounding countryside, you’ve experienced the never-ending views, witnessed the magic of light on the landscape over the course of the day, and noticed the ever-changing colors of nature’s palette infused in the sky and hills.

In contrast to the vastness of the landscapes she painted, other works in the exhibition reveal her interest in more intimate aspects of her surroundings. As she explored her backyard and beyond, she encountered things of simple beauty that inspired her to paint: a cactus flower that blooms just a few days a year, a sun-bleached skull, a turkey feather. She also painted katsina tithu, carved figures that are part of the Hopi spiritual system and commonly referred to as kachina or katsina dolls. Like the objects she plucked from the natural environment, these small, colorful figures were pieces of the larger cultural and aesthetic context in which she lived.

Within the vastness of her surroundings and breadth of her experiences in New Mexico, she took the time to slow down and notice the world around her. Reflecting on this approach later in life, she expressed, "I have picked flowers where I found them, have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked. When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too. I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it."

Georgia O’Keeffe, Ram's Head, Blue Morning Glory, 1938. Oil on canvas; 20 x 30 in. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum; Gift of The Burnett Foundation. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

To O’Keeffe, the “wideness and wonder” of the world took all forms – large and small, impressive and ordinary. Like the rhythm of a heartbeat, her subject matter contracts and expands, offering us both an up-close glimpse and an expansive view of her beloved New Mexico.

Image credit: Georgia O’Keeffe, Yellow Cactus, 1935. Oil on canvas; 36 x 30 in. Private collection. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

Molly Medakovich is the master teacher for western American art in the education department at the Denver Art Museum. Molly has been at the DAM since April 2012, and her favorite exhibition that has been on view here is In Contemporary Rhythm: The Art of Ernest L. Blumenschein.