Sunday, September 9, 2012


Georgia O'Keefe's Abiqui Home

Georgia O’Keefe is still an artist of the people despite her death 26 years ago at age 98.  Clean lines and crisp colors fill her oversized flowers.  Desert subjects evoke life and death.  Pastel canyons wave across  large canvases.  All are so simple and appealing to the public.  After a tour of O’Keefe’s Abiqui home in northern New Mexico, I learned those same qualities filled her life.

Judy Lopez, former companion of Mrs O’Keefe’s,  gave a tour of the winter home, just a few miles down from Ghost Ranch, the summer home.  “Total simplicity” was how a traveling mate described the Abiqui compound encompassed by rounded adobe walls. Sleek, modern lines easily supported the original Eanes furniture. Art work of O’Keefe’s friends filled the rooms although she was known to rearrange them often, noting that you stop seeing a picture if it is on the wall too long. Scattered throughout the house and courtyards were rocks, bones, and deadwood, collected on her many walks. And  out the large picture windows were Georgia’s familiar art subjects - valleys and canyons in desert colors, scrub trees, wooden doors, adobe walls.
Church near O'Keefe's home where she walked

O’Keefe’s ordinary tastes were reflected in the metal cabinets ordered from Sear’s and clothes hung to dry, summer or winter.   For entertaining, a linen tablecloth would be placed over the plyboard dining room table.   She bought the home from the Catholic church but negotiated the sale so that part of the price was deductible on her income tax returns.   Her wealth, like her fame,  was understood but carried lightly.

O’Keefe was green before it became fashionable.  An irrigated garden provided fresh vegetables and fruits, kept pesticide free by turkeys brought in to snack on the bugs.  Her life was surprisingly routine.  As an early riser, she often ate breakfast in the morning darkness - eggs always and her favorite fried potatoes with green chiles.  She enjoyed fruit yoghurt smoothies  and a light dinner at night.  Daily walks sustained her.  When her eyes faded, she had the paths painted white to better maneuver them, using rocks to keep count of her laps around the driveway.

View of valley below O'Keefe's home
By the time Ms. O’Keefe moved to Abiqui at age 67, her renown attracted fans.  Most would just drive by but some climbed the fence.  An employee escorted all away with one exception.  When two women from Japan pleaded to meet her, she asked them to tea, and kept in touch for years.  Knowing the need to keep her name before the media, O’Keefe did allow occasional interviews but would complain later about the big words used in the writings.

She still painted when inspired but after her vision was limited, she needed help in creating the art.  O’Keefe’s yearly notebooks that catalogued all of her work became smaller.  More time was spent on correspondence or even traveling.  Her library had a large section of travel books which were read to her as she aged.

Halfway into the tour, we got a hint of the will controversy generated after O’Keefe’s death.   Our guide was circumspect in her discussion of the ownership of the house, indicating only that the Georgia O’Keefe Museum in Santa Fe now owned it under the settlement agreement.  The actual story of a potter named Juan Hamilton arriving at Ms. O’Keefe home in 1971 looking for work is far more intriguing, filled with all the elements of a good will contest - younger male companion, elderly wealthy woman, years of companionship, gradual allocation of powers, and late in life amendments to a will.  In the end, most of the estate was distributed under the terms of the original will.

 The tour emphasized the veneer of Ms. O’Keefe’s time at Abiqui - simple, uncluttered in a beautiful  setting.  But her life was  complicated by wealth management, constraints of fame, physical deterioration, and need for companionship.  She tried to live her life as austerely as her paintings projected and came close to succeeding.  Old age just got in the way.


Sydney Young said...

Love this! Thanks for this posting.

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Jan Walker said...

An insightful and moving essay. Georgia O'Keefe has always been one of my most revered artists.

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