Georgia O’Keeffe began a pattern of extended stays in New Mexico in the summer of 1929, when she arrived with painter Rebecca Strand (wife of Paul Strand) and took up residence in a Taos studio provided by arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. “When you take a look at the paintings she did in those first five months, you find about two dozen—and more than half are totally new subjects altogether,” says Carolyn Kastner, associate curator at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe and co-organizer of the touring show “Georgia O’Keeffe in New Mexico: Architecture, Katsinam, and the Land.” The exhibition is on display at the museum through September 8 and then travels to the Heard Museum in Phoenix.
Kastner notes that O’Keeffe was “amazed by the landscape, but there is also a really strong cultural fascination that she expresses immediately.” In her first week in New Mexico, the artist bought a car, learned to drive, and went to Pueblo Indian dances. She became enchanted with crosses, adobe buildings, and bones, which would later appear in numerous paintings. “What’s clear is that she’s on fire with all this new cultural and visual stimulation,” Kastner adds.
Among the most startling works in the show are paintings of katsina tithu, or kachina dolls, brightly colored wooden representations of Pueblo and Hopi spirits used in ceremonies and rituals. O’Keeffe made 16 such depictions between 1931 and 1942, which range in height from about 10 to 24 inches and can convey monumental gravity or hapless comedy. The last picture in the series is of a mournful kokopelli (fertility doll), painted in New York and looking as if it’s caught in a snowstorm. Although they remain a lesser-known aspect of her prolific career, O’Keeffe’s kachinas can be compared to her paintings of dark canyons in what she called the Black Place. “She begins in a realist technique and finishes almost always in abstraction,” says Kastner.
Other surprising subjects include horseshoes, feathers, and ceramic chickens. The origin of this last theme was discovered by Kastner and the exhibition’s other organizer, former O’Keeffe Museum curator Barbara Buhler Lynes. “We thought they might have been some kind of Hispanic artifact,” Kastner says. “But it turns out they’re porcelain roosters from Florence that Mabel Dodge Luhan brought with her from Italy and installed on top of the adobe house that she built. They’re still there, right on the roofline.”