Georgia O’Keeffe: A Woman Ahead of Her Time

Maria Chabot, Georgia O'Keeffe Hitching a Ride to Abiquiu with Maurice Grosser, 1945. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum

Maria Chabot, Georgia O’Keeffe Hitching a Ride to Abiquiu with Maurice Grosser, 1945. Photographic print. Gift of Maria Chabot. Georgia O’Keefe Museum © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum [RC.2001.2.140.c]

While out to lunch with some local folks recently, I mentioned the 20th anniversary of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. To a person, each of my companions was astounded that only 20 years had gone by since the museum’s opening in July of 1997—everyone felt this most-visited Santa Fe Museum had been around much longer than that. One person even thought it had been more like 50 years.

Just as Georgia O’Keeffe herself made a tremendous impact on the art world, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum has left its mark on the Santa Fe arts and culture scene to such an extent that many of us assumed the three-building complex in downtown Santa Fe has been around longer than two decades. Since 1997, more than 3.5 million visitors have wandered the military-barracks-turned-church-turned-galleries on Johnson Street; browsed the archives at the former military officers’ quarters and private residence Research Center on Grant Avenue; attended workshops in the Education Annex (a former Safeway); and toured the Abiquiu house and studio. (That last one was always a residence, by the way.) Tourism Santa Fe says one of the questions they most often receive is about the O’Keeffe Museum–where it is and how to get there.

The museum holds over 10,000 objects relating to O’Keeffe, including 140 oil paintings and nearly 700 of drawings and sculptures, as well as photographs of the artist by notables like Ansel Adams, Annie Leibovitz, Andy Warhol and her husband Alfred Stieglitz, as well as photos of other historic objects and O’Keeffe’s two properties in Northern New Mexico. In 2006, 20 years after O’Keeffe’s death, the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation dissolved and transferred its assets to the museum, significantly boosting the collection, which continues to grow to this day.

Georgia O'Keeffe, In the Patio VII, 1950. Oil on canvas, 26x20 in. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation. © Georgia O'Keeffe Museum [1997.05.008]

Georgia O’Keeffe, In the Patio VII, 1950. Oil on canvas, 26×20 in. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Burnett Foundation and The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum [1997.05.008]

But what’s interesting about the museum is not merely the collection—though that is extraordinary, and includes such fascinating items as a selection of O’Keeffe’s bull-fighting memorabilia—is how it has shifted focus to Georgia O’Keeffe the person, the independent woman, the role model and key influencer in the world of modern and abstract art. When the museum opened 20 years ago, visitors saw few paintings on the walls, and drifted through exhibits of the works of various artists who were somehow related to O’Keeffe. There was little explanation of what was on display, and nothing about the artist’s life—no context for the subject of the works.

When I first visited the museum in the early 2000s, I wasn’t impressed by the collection or the museum itself. And because of that, I hadn’t been back until earlier this year. What a difference those intervening years have made.

For today’s visitor, O’Keeffe comes alive. She is more than paintings on the walls. Her work is shown and explained in context. Visitors learn about her life, her family, her loves, her obsessions, how she lived, what she ate, what she wore. This contemporary way of viewing an artist reveals O’Keeffe in her real, intense, messy glory, beyond the familiar O’Keeffes that focus our view on abstracted flowers and landscapes. Those are there, too. But today, the museum highlights, through its several themed galleries, the scope of O’Keeffe’s work, from sketches to watercolors to cityscapes, and how she tightly controlled her public persona. That control extended to which letters to and from her husband and others she allowed released and when, how she posed for the camera, and even to her clothes, which are now on view in a Brooklyn Museum exhibition until the end of July. (No fear, the distinctive dresses, hats and shoes are coming home soon.)

The museum’s evolved viewpoint developed after the release of a trove of letters in 2006, morphing the curatorial focus as people (artists, historians and designers) changed their perspectives on her, too. A collection of these letters was released in 2011 as My Faraway One: Selected Letters of Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz: Volume One, 1915-1933 by Sarah Greenough. These missives, as well as others, bring to light O’Keeffe’s opinions on minimalist, authentic living (a very modern concept at the time) in everything from her furniture to how she renovated her Abiquiu home and studio, to what and how she ate. Her relationships with men were also ahead of her time. O’Keeffe remained independent her whole life, even during her unconventional marriage to Alfred Stieglitz.

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, circa 1920-1922. Georgia O'Keeffe Museum.

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe, circa 1920-1922. Gelatin silver print, 4 1/2 x 3 1/2 in. Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation [2003.01.006].

What makes Georgia O’Keeffe’s story so compelling is her authenticity. Her no-nonsense life and art, as the O’Keeffe Museum now tells her story, were original and, for her time, unique. And to better tell her story, the museum is in the midst of an oral history project, gathering recorded stories from people who knew her. (She died in 1986 at age 98; there are many people still alive who knew her.) There’s nothing more authentic than hearing first-hand accounts.

O’Keeffe’s story, as the Museum tells it, has decidedly high-tech elements, too—for an artist born before the invention of radio. There’s a lot of geeky scientific stuff happening around her work. The museum helped develop special filters to better present and preserve light-sensitive works of art; there’s a 3-D modeling project in process for conservation of architecture, furniture and objects; and museum staff developed special framing techniques, all of which are now being used by other museums and institutions.

One of the cool and contemporary ways the O’Keeffe Museum is bringing the artist’s story to a generation of digital natives is the current gallery installation of time-lapse video from the Abiquiu house, and the live feed on the website showing the house’s garden as it progresses through the summer and harvest season. The museum’s mobile app is also the primary way that visitors experience the current exhibits, and can be accessed from any mobile device anywhere in the world. One need not be in Santa Fe to experience the exhibitions or learn about the work, life and profound influence of Georgia O’Keeffe. I think she’d approve.

The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is located at 217 Johnson Street in Santa Fe, 505.946.1000,

Story by Kelly Koepke

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