Georgia O’Keeffe’s Near Abiquiu, New Mexico, painted in 1931, links four of the most influential women in 20th-century art: O’Keeffe herself, arguably the most celebrated female artist of the 20th century; Mabel Dodge Luhan, whose Taos arts colony hosted the likes of D.H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley and Ansel Adams; Edith Halpert, whose Downtown Gallery showcased, in addition to O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Stuart Davis, Charles Sheeler and Jack Levine; and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, co-founder of MoMA.
O’Keeffe had first visited New Mexico in 1929, two years before she created Near Abiquiu — staying at the ranch owned by Mabel Dodge Luhan, who is described by Elizabeth Beaman, Senior Director of American Paintings in New York, as ‘a sort of Gertrude Stein of the New Mexico artists’ circle’.
From 1913 to 1916, Luhan had presided over one of the famous salons in American history — her ‘Wednesday Evenings’ at 23 Fifth Avenue in New York served as a gathering spot for those who supported avant-garde ideas in the arts, politics and society. The topics debated ranged from the ideas of Sigmund Freud to the virtues of free love.
O’Keeffe was immediately taken with New Mexico’s seemingly untouched vistas of deserts and mountains, and their particular light. ‘You know I never feel at home in the East like I do out here,’ she wrote. ‘And finally feeling in the right place again — I feel like myself — and I like it.’
Near Abiquiu expresses one of the qualities O’Keeffe most loved about New Mexico: the ability to see clearly over great distances. ‘O’Keeffe has really focused here on the way the clear New Mexico light hits the mountain ranges, and she’s included a small sliver of blue sky across the top,’ says Beaman.
‘The surface is very rich and textural, particularly where two different pigments meet,’ adds the specialist. ‘Rather than mixing or layering pigments, as many other artists would, O’Keeffe deliberately placed them side by side, creating beautiful ridges in the surface.’
The young David Rockefeller had visited New Mexico three years before O’Keeffe, in the summer of 1926. ‘It was hardly a common journey at the time,’ remarks Beaman. Together with his parents, John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller, and his brothers Laurance and Winthrop, David celebrated his 11th birthday in Taos in the midst of a 10,000-mile, two-month railway trip across the Southwest.
Near Abiquiu, New Mexico on display in the private office of David Rockefeller at Rockefeller Center © 2018 Georgia O'Keeffe Museum / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Peggy and David acquired Near Abiquiu in 1997, perhaps inspired by David’s long-ago trip to New Mexico, as well as the fact that the painting was originally represented by The Downtown Gallery, a pioneering New York gallery owned by Edith Halpert, who championed O'Keeffe’s work. Abby was a close friend of Halpert’s, and bought a number of the works in her collection from The Downtown Gallery — one of very few dealers in the 1920s to promote contemporary American art and American folk art. Halpert was also central to assembling the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection, now at Colonial Williamsburg.
‘One can imagine that, because of Abby, The Downtown Gallery provenance would have been particularly meaningful,’ says Beaman. ‘We do know that Peggy and David acquired their first work by O’Keeffe in 1973, out of the estate of Edith Halpert from The Downtown Gallery.’
Beaman first encountered Near Abiquiu on a visit to the Rockefellers’ Four Winds home about 10 years ago. ‘It was such a pleasant surprise because it was kept in a guest bedroom — really quite a simple room with two twin beds. There were no other pictures in the room, and so I just walked in and saw this incredible O’Keeffe,’ she recalls. ‘It really demonstrated to me the way in which the Rockefellers chose to live with their art.’
A smaller version of Near Abiquiu, painted in 1930, is currently in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.