1929–1934: New Mexico / New York
Georgia returned to New Mexico, the place she called "the faraway." She explored her surroundings, the mountains and deserts and signs of settlement such as the ranches and the mission churches, but she also spent time with Mabel Luhan’s husband, Tony, who was of Navajo decent. He exposed her to different Navajo cultural practices, such as dances, which gave Georgia an opportunity to witness the performance of non-western spiritual customs.
The natural environment of New Mexico, with the colorful landscape, strong light, and starkness of contrast, attracted O’Keeffe. Moreover, her creativity and artistic drive were not hampered in the New Mexican wilderness. She had room to explore and contemplate, both the world around her and the connection she sought through her artwork. Her independent exploration became more frequent and her destinations more remote when she learned how to drive and purchased a Model A Ford.
Among the many different subjects of O’Keeffe’s paintings were large wooden crosses erected throughout the desert by a clandestine Catholic sect. Indeed, the Catholic church clearly exerted great power over the imagery of the New Mexican landscape. This power dominates such paintings as Black Cross, New Mexico (1929). In another treatment of images of death, Georgia studied and painted animal bones left scattered throughout the desert, positioning these images of past life and death in unusual ways and juxtapositions. Her fascination with mission churches, with their curving adobe walls, demonstrated her attraction to objects and places that had spiritual meaning and were charged with the human emotion of faith. Looking at the side of the Ranchos Church in Taos, Georgia created an interesting abstraction, Ranchos Church (1930), that focuses on the colors and the texture of the building without any representations of life. Although many of the images Georgia chose to paint represented–at least to some extent–the life that had long gone, her manner of using colors and her distinctive techniques to achieve abstraction and detachment infused the objects with life. Just as she had challenged her students in Texas to see the beauty in their landscapes, she saw beauty in lifeless objects and desolate landscapes.
Although O’Keeffe avoided providing interpretations of her work, she made the desert come alive for many viewers, and in turn the desert gave her ideas. In addition, her paintings are not clearly part of one single artistic movement more specific than the general movement of American modernism. Indeed, O’Keeffe’s her styles and aims vary, from abstraction to symbolism, and she apparently did not concern herself much with other’s interpretations of her works: "O’Keeffe never made a firm distinction between representation and abstraction the way other people did, and she always went back and forth between the two approaches. What was objective to her was sometimes nonobjective to others and vice versa, and she applied nonobjective principles to realism, as Arthur Wesley Dow had taught" (Lisle 278).
Georgia enjoyed her time in New Mexico, but still went back to New York to be with Stieglitz every year. In 1932 she won a competition to paint a mural for Radio City Music Hall, only to find out that the ceiling could not support her canvases. Not long after, she suffered from a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for two months, and later went to Bermuda to recover. Meanwhile, Stieglitz felt guilty about O’Keeffe’s illness, as he had been seeing Dorothy Norman, a young poet. In fact, Stieglitz had been photographing Norman just as he had photographed O’Keeffe, in sensual positions that suggested that the artist-model relationship extended beyond the photograph. Stieglitz made frequent visits to Norman’s home, and she helped him arrange a publication about his art. Both had a high regard for the art of photography, and Norman proved to be an excellent manager for the gallery, An American Place. Stieglitz acted as Norman’s direct mentor, and her photography reflected his tutelage. Unfortunately, Georgia was enraged upon seeing that she had been replaced, and Stieglitz was unable to give her the attention she needed to recover. After her trip to Bermuda, she isolated herself at Lake George, eventually inviting the writer Jean Toomer. Toomer had recently lost his wife and was also recovering. Their partnership was of mutual benefit, and after Toomer departed, O’Keeffe’s letters to him were affectionate and warm. She was finally inspired to paint again.
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