As is true with all of Georgia O'Keeffe's finest works, the strength of Ghost Ranch Cliffs lies in its careful balance of realism and abstraction, its intricate layering of objective and subjective meaning and its synthesis of form and color. Painted in 1952, after the artist had permanently settled in Abiquiu, New Mexico, the present work embodies the intense spirituality that O'Keeffe felt was inherent to the beautiful, barren landscape of the American Southwest.
The distinct hills and mesas of New Mexico were the first scenes O'Keeffe painted on her initial trip to the region in 1929. Over the years that followed, she returned to the subject time and again, capturing the magnificence of the landscape she so loved with her innovative use of light, color and form. In Ghost Ranch Cliff, O'Keeffe uses broad brushwork to illustrate fog rolling over the pink and yellow cliffs near Abiquiu. Creatively employing the thick weave of the canvas, she conveys the play of light in the desert but also the coarse textures of the region.
In Ghost Ranch Cliff, as with all of her paintings, O'Keeffe does not merely transcribe the scene; rather, she visually reinterprets it so as to express her personal reaction to the landscape. In her biographical catalogue of 1976, she expressed this goal of her artwork, writing, "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." (quoted in E.H. Turner, Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. 69)
This effort to go beyond the representational in order to fully share her perspective is particularly evident in O'Keeffe's depictions of the New Mexico desert. She explained, "A flower touches almost everyone's heart. A red hill doesn't touch everyone's heart as it touches mine...You have no associations with those hills--our waste land--I think our most beautiful country." (quoted in L. Goodrich, Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1970, p. 22) Accordingly, in the present work, O'Keeffe deliberately includes her subjective emotions about the rocky environment rather than just its form. A true Modernist, she represents the cliffs in an abstract way by focusing on the act of painting itself. Yet, ever faithful to her subject, she endows the scene with a weightlessness and spirituality that befit the landscape that surrounded her in Abiquiu.
Describing O'Keeffe's work in the Southwest, Lloyd Goodrich wrote, "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." (ibid., p. 22)
Georgia O'Keeffe at the entrance of her Abiquiu home with mounted elk horn on the wall, circa 1967. © Condé Nast Archive/Corbis.