USA, New Mexico: Visit the landscapes that inspired artist Georgia O'Keeffe

The world of artist Georgia O'Keeffe is ochre and sage and electric blue. Ragged dirt roads stretching off into infinity. Mesas emerging like apocalyptic remnants from a moonscape. Lacquered skies dripping onto the stonewashed horizon. In my mind's eye, O'Keeffe is picking through this forsaken place, black dress and padre's hat armouring her against the sun, black eyes alert for stones and bones and the implausible blossoms that might one day become the subjects of her paintings.

I've seen these landscapes through the eyes of the great American modernist, rendered in two dimensions in her fabled paintings.They hang on the walls like profligate offerings to the pilgrims streaming into the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico, selections from 700 sketches, watercolours, pastels and oils.

Here are those chalky massifs and the bleached skulls offset with brilliant flowers; there are the sensuous petals whose sexualised interpretation said more about the reviewer, O'Keeffe would say, than they did about her actual intentions.

PAINTED COUNTRY

But it's out on road that O'Keeffe's country materialises in all its abundance, for this is her work breathed to life. As I drive northwards from Santa Fe, her canvas expands dome-like around me. Every cell is filled with colour, with those enormous skies, with plateaus striated in earthen rainbows and sagebrush feathering the plains.

It was this backdrop that first captivated the artist when she visited the town of Taos in 1929 as a guest of the arts patron and writer Mabel Dodge Luhan. The trip would alter her course – and define her life's work. Born and raised in Wisconsin, and resident of New York City with her husband, the photographer and modern art promoter Alfred Stieglitz, O'Keeffe had found her destiny.

"When I got to New Mexico that was mine," she said years later. "As soon as I saw it that was my country. I'd never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly." Importantly, this was a country that offered a fourth dimension, something more esoteric than striking landforms and saturated colour. There were the qualities unspoken but implied, the emptiness that induces a sense of pathos, the spaciousness invoking freedom and the history running like quicksilver through the earth's seams.

These elements wash over me now as I climb up through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains towards Taos. Far below rolls the Rio Grande through the valleys; but up here the landmass is chiselled into unearthly hoodoos and snow-flecked peaks. I tunnel through forests of towering ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, pass the scattered remnants of Spanish villages and their churches casting dominion over the land. Approaching Taos, I freewheel into a violent scene, purple clouds advancing from the horizon and bolts of lightning skewering the plains.

PUEBLOANS AND PENITENTES

Long before the arrival of Hispanic explorers and Spanish colonists, before the influx of hippies and artists and skiers, New Mexico was inhabited by the Tiwa nation. Some of their pueblos still survive. Their adobe houses, whose walls glow golden when struck by the sun, provided fresh inspiration for O'Keeffe during those early summers in Taos.

At first she set to work inside an adobe house in the Mabel Dodge Luhan compound (now privately owned, the house sags unapproachably behind a wall of dandelions). On later visits, she stayed in a loft above a courtyard filled with Chinese elms and crab apples in the adobe-walled Sagebrush Inn.

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This muddy Puebloan motif became a subject of her work: she painted the 1000-year-old structures at Taos Pueblo, so elemental they seem to sprout ready-baked from the earth; she depicted the San Francisco de Asis Mission Church located in the main plaza of Ranchos de Taos, limning its cruciform planes and beehive buttresses in several voluptuous iterations.

But it was the enigmatic crosses she encountered on late night walks through the desert that became her most intriguing subjects. "I saw the crosses so often – and often in unexpected places – like a thin dark veil of the Catholic Church spread over the New Mexico landscape," she later recalled.These were crosses erected by a secretive Catholic brotherhood called the Penitentes, whose members would practise agonising penances to atone for their sins. Their tortured spirit still haunts this land.

Setting out to find the cross O'Keeffe made famous in her painting Black Cross, New Mexico, I pass Mabel Dodge Luhan House (now a lodge and retreat centre) and follow the narrow road until it peters out beside a cemetery on the edge of town. Modest headstones and weatherworn crosses gather forlornly on this plot and amid these is O'Keeffe's cross, rising tall as a tree and stained black against the midday sun.

All these years later, it's just as she described it, "big and strong, put together with wooden pegs." Behind it are the hills that background her subject, lumpen and endless like "two miles of grey elephants". Painting these crosses, O'Keeffe said, was a way of painting the country.

SEARCHING FOR GEORGIA'S GHOST

The low road from Taos to Santa Fe cuts through wide-angled desert and sandblasted plateaus. At Espanola I turn north towards Abiquiu and press on until the aperture constricts and the mesas rise imposingly beside me. A signpost arcs above the entrance to Ghost Ranch: churro sheep were first brought here by the Spanish 400 years ago; it was later named for the spirits that haunted rustlers as they skulked through canyons with their quarry.

By the time O'Keeffe arrived here from Abiquiu in 1934, the property was operating as a dude ranch."She thought dudes were a lower form of life," says Ghost Ranch guide Phil Shepherd. "Privileged men from the east coast who'd come here to play cowboy." But the taciturn artist was won over by the configurations buttressing the landscape. She rented a cottage from the owner, Arthur Pack, and later bought an adobe house on the ranch with a distant view of Cerro Pedernal, the flat-topped mesa on which her ashes would one day be scattered.

It was her own private mountain, she declared. God had told her that if she painted it often enough, she could have it. The house isn't open to the public (it belongs to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, while Ghost Ranch is now owned by the Presbyterian Church). But peering over its coyote fence we can see the mud structure with a ladder leading to its roof, where O'Keeffe would sleep on hot nights, and the courtyard fixed on that melancholy view. Behind us, Chinle formations hang like striped curtains in the artist's backyard, providing a fecundity of material for her already fertile imagination.

"Can you find this guy?" Shepherd asks, holding aloft a print of Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills, 1937. Vegetation is sparse, but jimsonweed and junipers thrive here amida clutch of pinons. O'Keeffe's cedar is in fact a juniper, and it's barely changed since the day she painted it: a sinuous trunk set against a backdrop that's purple in her painting but washed out today by an unforgiving sun.

"Junipers grow slowly, and when they die they can stay as they are for hundreds of years," Shepherd says. "They're wonderful markers to help us identify her painting sites."

A SANCTUARY IN ABIQUIU

All summer long, O'Keeffe would paint at Ghost Ranch, but when winter's snow cloaked the badlands and sucked the heat from its core, she retreated to the house she'd bought in Abiquiu in 1945. It had been a serendipitous discovery: heading down the old Chama Highway one day, she'd spotted a crumbling adobe wall and had found behind it an uninhabited Pueblo revival house. Determined to live there, she'd wrested ownership from the Archdiocese of Santa Fe, and had moved from New York to New Mexico permanently in 1949 (Stieglitz died in 1946 having never visited his wife's painted country).

"Everything is here as it was when Miss O'Keeffe walked off the property in 1984, down to her herbs that she's picked from her garden which are drying in the jars right there," says Abiquiu guide Suzie Fowler-Tutt as we walk through the artist's pantry. The house models minimalism with its plywood dining table and artlessly arranged rock collections and Sears and Roebuck cabinets embedded in thick adobe walls. From her bedroom, O'Keeffe could gaze out of the picture windows at a broad sweep of the Chama River Valley inscribed with a latterly-built highway.

"You see that little squiggle before it disappears into the mountains?" asks Fowler-Tutt, pointing to the ribbon of tar cushioned between cottonwoods. "She thought that was fantastic. It actually inspired an entire series of work."

This road, meditated upon by O'Keeffe from her sanctuary, unfurls with meaning as I make my way back to Santa Fe – the city she moved to reluctantly in 1984 to be closer to medical care, and where she died two years later aged 98.

My own departure from this otherworld is poignant, too. I watch in the rear view mirror as the asphalt is swallowed by that implacable, grief-stricken landscape. It is inseparable from O'Keeffe, and she from it; the two are knitted together so irretrievably it seems each has given birth to the other.

FIVE MORE THINGS TO DO IN NEW MEXICO

GEORGIA O'KEEFFE DEGUSTATION

Drawing inspiration from his great aunt, who cooked for O'Keeffe for 15 years, Eloisa head chef John Sedlar has created The O'Keeffe Table, a celebration of the artist's love of gardening, cooking and nutrition. Served on reflectiones – plates illustrated with photographs of O'Keeffe and her art – the menu traces her journey from Wisconsin to Ghost Ranch. See eloisasantafe.com

TAOS PUEBLO

Believed to be the oldest continuously-inhabited community in the United States, this UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Historic Landmark is still occupied by Native American people and contains preserved adobe structures dating back around 1000 years. Guided tours are offered on days when the pueblo is open. See taospueblo.com

ALBUQUERQUE INTERNATIONAL BALLOON FIESTA

Clear skies and calm conditions allow Albuquerque's 300-plus resident balloonists to take to the air frequently throughout the year. For a truly spectacular show, visit in October when the annual Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta, the world's largest such event, takes place. visitalbuquerque.org/balloon-fiesta

CHACO CANYON

Evidence of the pre-Columbian culture that thrived in and around Chaco Canyon in north-west New Mexico has been preserved in the many public and ceremonial buildings erected here by ancestral Puebloans. The World Heritage listing encompasses Chaco Culture National Historical Park and Aztec Ruins National Monument. nps.gov/chcu/index.htm

OJO CALIENTE

Believed by the Tiwa people to be a portal to the underworld, the springs at Ojo Caliente have been used as a curative for thousands of years. Today, visitors to Ojo Caliente Resort and Spa can enjoy its mud baths and lithia, iron, soda and arsenic pools. ojospa.com

FIVE OTHER ARTISTS INSPIRED BY LANDSCAPE

JACOBUS HENRIK PIERNEEF, SOUTH AFRICA

The early 20th century modernist distilled his country's landscapes into the geometric shapes, linear planes and blocks of dramatic colour that are so redolent of his work. One of his most acclaimed projects, 32 murals painted for the Johannesburg Railway Station (and now on display at the Rupert Museum in Stellenbosch), represents a variety of landscapes encountered during his travels through Southern Africa. rupertmuseum.org

PAUL GAUGUIN, TAHITI

The very name "Gauguin" conjures the verdancy of the remote South Pacific archipelago of French Polynesia, to which the post-impressionist French artist retreated in search of new, exotic motifs. His behaviour vis-a-vis the family he left behind in France and the underage girls he pursued in French Polynesia notwithstanding, his Tahitian landscapes do indeed evoke a paradise drenched in colour and imbued with a purity that's absent in the modern world.

RITA ANGUS, NEW ZEALAND

Regarded as one of the great New Zealand artists of the 20th century, Angus, born in 1908, used as her muse the clarified light and empty, majestical landscapes of her home country. Rendered with sharp edges and imbued with a sense of remoteness and isolation, they became emblematic of a country keen to underscore its detachment from Europe. The artist is the subject of a retrospective opening at London's Royal Academy of Arts later this year. See royalacademy.org.uk/exhibition/rita-angus

JOHN CONSTABLE

So popular were the Romantic English painter's landscapes, their chief subject – Dedham Vale near Colchester in south-east England, where he lived – is today known as "'Constable country". The gently rolling countryside is portrayed with strident use of colour and robust brushwork.

ARTHUR STREETON

As a leading member of the Heidelberg School – named for the then-rural area north-east of Melbourne where members painted outdoors – Streeton helped define Australia's image through his impressions of its singular light, heat and sense of space. He also found inspiration for his landscapes elsewhere in Victoria as well as in Sydney and the Blue Mountains.

EIGHT ARTISTS' HOMES WORTH VISITING

CAZA AZUL, MEXICO CITY

The iconic blue house in Mexico City is where artist Frida Kahlo was born and died. Though she moved about following her marriage to fellow artist Diego Rivera, her family home was a place of inspiration to which she always returned. Filled with personal artefacts and some of Kahlo's most important works, the house embodies the colour and intensity that defined her extraordinary life. museofridakahlo.org.mx/en

MACKINTOSH HOUSE, GLASGOW, SCOTLAND

The Victorian terrace occupied by Scottish architect, designer and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh and his artist wife, Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh was demolished in the early 1960s; however its principle rooms were meticulously reassembled nearby, in a building purpose-designed and built on the grounds of the University of Glasgow. Furnished and decorated with Mackintosh's designs, it reflects to the couple's significant influence on the Glasgow Style. See gla.ac.uk/hunterian/collections/permanentdisplays/themackintoshhouse

LA MANSANA DE CHINATI, MARFA, TEXAS

Minimalist artist Donald Judd left New York for the Chihuahuan Desert of west Texas in the late 1970s and transformed the windswept town into a repository for his and other 20th century designers' and artists' work. Visitors can see examples of Judd's early work at his residence and studio, including an immaculately curated library containing 13,000 volumes and ordered by authors' birth dates. Judd's New York home and studio is also open to the public. See juddfoundation.org/visit/marfa

ALBERT NAMATJIRA'S HOUSE, HERMANNSBERG, NT

Located on the outskirts of the Hermannsburg Historic Precinct west of Alice Springs, Namatjira's house is immersed in the stark, mesmerising landscape he painted as a leading exponent of central Australian landscape painting. A product of the Hermannsberg School, whose output was characterised by European-style watercolours, Namatjira was first Aboriginal artist to be exhibited commercially both nationally and internationally. northernterritory.com/alice-springs-and-surrounds/see-and-do/albert-namatjiras-house; araluenartscentre.nt.gov.au

THE OWL HOUSE, NIEU-BETHESDA, SOUTH AFRICA

Outsider artist Helen Martins transformed her home in the Karoo's Sneeuberg Mountains into a masterwork using crushed glass, mirrors and a superfluity of colour and ornamentation. Sculptures depicting mythical figures and creatures – including the owls for which the house is named – fill the garden, known as the Camel Yard. Playwright Athol Fugard's Road to Mecca was inspired by the enigmatic artist. theowlhouse.co.za

CASA MUSEO GUAYASAMIN, QUITO, ECUADOR

Set high on a hill overlooking Quito, the home of Oswaldo Guayasamin is a repository for the most complete collection of the legendary artist's work. His extensive private collection – encompassing pre-Columbian artefacts, Spanish colonial art and religious art – is also displayed here, providing a counterpoint to the intense socio-political themes explored in his own work. See ecuador.com/attractions/museums/fundacion-guayasamin/

CHILLIDA LEKU, HERNANI, SPAIN

Celebrated Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida found the perfect gallery for his artwork in Hernani on the outskirts of San Sebastian. It was in this village that he'd first learned to work with iron, a material that would come to characterise his work. Today, many of these monumental artworks are displayed in the grounds, while the 16th-century stone and timber farmhouse serves as a gallery for rotating exhibitions. After closing in 2011 due to lack of funding, the museum reopened in 2019. See museochillidaleku.com/en

VINCENT CITY, GUAGNANO, PUGLIA

Located near the city of Lecce, this fantastical compound is the brainchild of eccentric painter Vincent Brunetti, who can be found working frantically on his latest composition even as visitors mill about him (while the home is private, he is known to accept drop-ins). The mishmash of buildings are smothered in bright mosaics art and filled with kitsch, including his own prodigious paintings, which are stacked along the walls of his studio. See vincentbrunetti.it 

TRIP NOTES

Catherine Marshall was a guest of Brand USA, Tourism Santa Fe Tourism and Visit Taos.

MORE

traveller.com.au/usa

santafe.org

taos.org

FLY

American Airlines flies to Santa Fe from Sydney via Los Angeles or Dallas-Forth Worth, and from Melbourne via Los Angeles and Dallas Fort-Worth. See americanairlines.com.au

STAY

Georgia O'Keeffe's room at the Sagebrush Inn, known as The Artists' Loft, from $US120 twin share; bookings should be made well in advance. See sagebrushinn.com 

Rooms at Mabel Dodge Luhan House from $US116 twin share. See mabeldodgeluhan.com

At Santa Fe's Inn on the Alameda a single queen room starts from around $US150 and includes breakfast, a wine and cheese happy hour, parking and courtesy shuttle. See innonthealameda.com

VISIT

Three new exhibitions at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Travels, The Natural World, and Seeing Beyond – explore the artist's legacy. Entry $US13 a person. The museum's Home and Studio Tour at Abiquiu (an hour's drive north-west of Santa Fe) is conducted seasonally, $US45 a person. See okeeffemuseum.org

Ghost Ranch's O'Keeffe Landscape Tour, $US39 a person. See ghostranch.org.

The O'Keeffe Table five-course tasting menu at Eloisa, $US75 (excluding wine). See eloisasantafe.com.

Mabel Dodge Luhan House offers a variety of workshops and retreats. See mabeldodgeluhan.com.

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