Audio: Georgia O'Keeffe, Hills and Mesa to the West
Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
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Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)

Hills and Mesa to the West

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986)
Hills and Mesa to the West
oil on canvas
19 x 36 in. (48.3 x 91.4 cm.)
Painted in 1945.
The artist.
Private collection, New York, 1976.
Private collection, New York.
An American Place, Georgia O’Keeffe Paintings, exhibition checklist, New York, 1946, no. 6.
Museum of Modern Art, Georgia O’Keeffe Retrospective, exhibition checklist, New York, 1946, no. 56.
E. McCausland, “Review of Museum of Modern Art Retrospective,” Springfield Sunday Union and Republican, May 26, 1946, p. 6-C, illustrated (as Hills to West).
Bryn Mawr College, The M. Carey Thomas Awards to Hannah Arendt and Georgia O'Keeffe, exhibition checklist, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, 1971, no. 18.
Museum of Modern Art, The Natural Paradise: Painting in America 1800-1950, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1976, p. 117, illustrated.
D. Bry, N. Callaway, eds., Georgia O’Keeffe in the West, New York, 1989, n.p., pl. 70, illustrated.
C.C. Eldredge, Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 1991, pp. 103-04, 116-17, illustrated.
I.M. Franck, D.M. Brownstone, Women's World: A Timeline of Women in History, New York, 1995, p. 414.
B.B. Lynes, Georgia O’Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné, vol. 2, appendix II, New Haven, Connecticut, 1999, p. 1107, no. 121, illustrated.
B. Curiger, C. Ratcliff, P.J. Schneemann, Georgia O’Keeffe, exhibition catalogue, Zurich, Switzerland, 2003, pp. 122, 194, no. 54, illustrated.
New York, An American Place, Georgia O’Keeffe Paintings, February 4-March 27, 1946, no. 6.
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Georgia O’Keeffe Retrospective, May 14-August 25, 1946, no. 56.
Washington, D.C., National Collection of Fine Arts, Smithsonian Institution, American Landscape: A Changing Frontier, April 27-June 19, 1966.
Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Bryn Mawr College, The M. Carey Thomas Awards to Hannah Arendt and Georgia O'Keeffe, October 21-November 2, 1971, no. 18.
New York, Museum of Modern Art, The Natural Paradise: Painting in America 1800-1950, October 1-November 30, 1976.
Zurich, Switzerland, Kunsthaus Zürich, Georgia O’Keeffe, October 24, 2003-February 1, 2004, no. 54.

Lot Essay

Georgia O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1929 and was immediately drawn to the vast beauty and color of the landscape, writing to Henry McBride from Taos, "You know I never feel at home in the East like I do out here--and finally feeling in the right place again--I like myself--and I like it--It is just unbelievable--One perfect day after another--I have the most beautiful adobe studio--out the very large window to a rich green alfalfa field--then the sage brush and beyond--a most perfect mountain--it makes me feel like flying--." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, New York, 1987, pp. 189-90). Hills and Mesa to the West belongs to a seminal group of works depicting the red hills near O'Keeffe's later home at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. This work is an exceptional example not only of her mastery of color and composition, but also of O'Keeffe's deft ability to not only record, but to capture in paint the spirituality of the magnificent Southwest landscape.

After her initial visit, O’Keeffe made almost annual trips to New Mexico, painting in relative solitude for up to six months, then returning to New York each winter to exhibit her new works at her husband, Alfred Stieglitz's gallery. In 1940, O’Keeffe purchased a house at Ghost Ranch in the Chama River valley approximately 60 miles northwest of Santa Fe. The stark simplicity of the desert landscape around Ghost Ranch appealed strongly to O’Keeffe, and her views of the area soon became as well-known as her magnified flower paintings. The house at Ghost Ranch became her summer and fall home after she bought another house in Abiquiu in 1945. She moved to New Mexico permanently in 1949.

The distinct hills and mesas were the first scenes O'Keeffe painted upon her arrival in New Mexico, and she returned to the subject time and again. Painted in 1945, Hills and Mesa to the West is both an objective interpretation of a desert landscape and a meditation on form and color. O'Keeffe felt a close connection to the landscape, and the present work manifests the intense spirituality and wonder that she associated with the place. The various forms and textures of the landscape have been reduced to interlocking blocks of modulated color, yet the composition is not abstract. The brilliant Southwestern light enabled O'Keeffe to see clearly over great distances, and the long, horizontal canvas conveys a striking sense of the region’s expansive panoramic views. This format is seen in another work from 1945, Abiquiu Sand Hills and Mesa, which is in the collection of the Art Institute Chicago.

In Hills and Mesa to the West, O'Keeffe incorporates the natural world, as well as the abstract one, by implementing the pictorial strategies that she had developed earlier in her career, as seen in Lake George from 1922. In both works, the subtle modeling of forms simultaneously creates a sense of sculptural depth and of flattened design. In the present work O'Keeffe utilizes a high horizon line and semi-abstracted forms to emphasize the monumental and spiritual qualities of the desert. She wrote of her approach, "I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing that I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at--not copy it." (as quoted in M.P. Balge-Crozier, "Still Life Redefined" in Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 69).

Composed of brilliant and varying hues, Hills and Mesa to the West is also a testament to O'Keeffe's passion for color and her unique ability to capture the dramatic and transitory hues of the Southwest at various times of the day. Throughout her career, color was as important to her as form and content. In 1930, she wrote, "Color is one of the great things in the world that makes life worth living to me and as I have come to think of painting it is my effort to create an equivalent with paint color for the world--life as I see it." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, p. 202). Much of O'Keeffe's philosophy about the use of color was inspired by Wassily Kandinsky, who in his Concerning the Spiritual in Art claimed that "color directly influences the soul."

Many other American modernists were drawn to the grandeur of the New Mexico landscape, but none were able to capture its expanse, mystical spirituality and light as effectively and with as much emotion as O’Keeffe. Marsden Hartley, another member of Stieglitz’s circle and close friend of O’Keeffe’s, travelled to New Mexico from June 1918 to the fall of 1919. His New Mexico from 1919 depicts a similar subject to Hills and Mesa to the West; however, it is more stylized and expressionistic than O’Keeffe’s interpretation of the landscape. John Sloan was another modernist who was an early appreciator of the New Mexico landscape. He first went to New Mexico in 1919 and for the next thirty years spent every summer in Santa Fe. His depictions of the landscape were more literal than O’Keeffe’s, as seen in Little Ranch House from 1926. Stuart Davis visited Sloan in Santa Fe in the summer of 1923. Unlike O’Keeffe, Davis was overwhelmed and challenged by the vast expanse of open space. His New Mexican Landscape from that year lacks the excitement and feeling of his New York and New England paintings.

Lloyd Goodrich most aptly summarizes O’Keeffe’s fantastic ability to capture the unique landscape embodied by Hills and Mesa to the West, “The Southwest has been painted often--but often badly, by artists who believe that a beautiful subject produces a beautiful picture. But O'Keeffe translates this landscape into the language of art. She models the hills so that they possess substance and weight. She carves their intricate folded and furrowed forms into powerful sculptural creations. The unbelievable colors of the desert are recorded without sweetening, in full-bodied earthy harmonies. Always her desert poetry is embodied in robust physical language, speaking to her senses." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe Retrospective Exhibition, New York, 1970, p. 22)

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