Georgia O’Keeffe first visited New Mexico in 1929 and was immediately drawn to the vast beauty and color of the landscape. Lloyd Goodrich wrote of O'Keeffe's celebrated depictions of the region, "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." (Georgia O'Keeffe Retrospective Exhibition, New York, 1970, p. 22)
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. Jack Cowart writes, "By 1929 O'Keeffe confirmed that her truest, most consistent visual sources were in the American Southwest. These sources refreshed her physically, mentally, artistically. The sky, the vastness, the sounds, the danger of the plains, Badlands, canyons, rocks, and bleached bones of the desert struck her as authentic and essential to her life as well as to her art...She wanted to show her wonder. Indeed it is her wonder, her razor-sharp vision, and her response to that vision that continue to astonish us. No artist has seen and painted like O'Keeffe, whose spiritual communion with her subject was of a special quality, unparalleled, and irreducible." (Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, New York, 1987, p. 5) O’Keeffe famously captured the rugged Southwestern topography in works such as Sand Hill, Alcalde with a modern style, emphasizing its undulating forms and crystalline light. The crisp outlines and subtle modeling of forms simultaneously create a sense of sculptural depth and of flattened design.
The present work depicts the sandy hills near Alcalde, New Mexico, roughly 40 miles southwest of Taos. During the summers of 1930 and 1931, O’Keeffe stayed at the H Ranch just south of the town along the Rio Grande as the guest of Marie Tudor Garland. She was immediately captivated by the spare landscape of the area, often driving out into the hills and using her Model A Ford as her studio. At the same time, O’Keeffe was also overwhelmed by this vast desert environment and almost feared its hidden dangers, writing to Henry McBride in 1931 from Alcalde: “It galls me that I haven’t the courage to sleep out there in the hills alone--but I haven’t.” (as quoted in S.R. Udall, Carr, O’Keeffe, Kahlo: Places of Their Own, New Haven, Connecticut, 2000, p. 223) Still, she found a deep connection emotionally and artistically with the land, reflecting of her drives around Alcalde, “I think I never had a better time painting--and never worked more steadily and never loved the country more.” (as quoted in R. Robinson, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1999, p. 359)
Her spiritual connection with this region is embodied in Sand Hill, Alcalde, where O'Keeffe utilizes semi-abstracted forms and wonderfully modulated hues to emphasize the mystical qualities of the desert site. Incorporating the natural world as well as the abstract one, the painting reflects the pictorial strategies that she had developed earlier in her career--an interest in a type of heightened realism that pushes an image to the edge of abstraction. O'Keeffe 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) It is this layering of visual and spiritual interpretations of the landscape that makes Sand Hill, Alcalde a characteristically remarkable work.
Sand Hill, Alcalde relates closely to Soft Grey Alcalde Hill (circa 1929-30, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.) and New Mexican Landscape (1930, Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusetts).