In honor of Women’s History Month, my essay on Georgia O’Keeffe published this month in Houston Woman Magazine. Enjoy!
What was there to love about the abandoned house perched over route 84, north of Santa Fe by 53 miles? Its adobe walls were cracked and crumbling, the beams fallen, the doors dangling. Much of the roof had collapsed long ago. It was a ruin.
But there is something about a ruin that inspires longing, and Georgia O’Keeffe persisted a decade to make that earth her own.
When she first clambered into that ruin in the tiny hilltop village of Abiquiu, O’Keeffe was looking for a less remote outpost for her life in New Mexico. What she found was a beautiful view, spreading out over the Chama River valley to the low mountains beyond, and a walled garden with water rights, where she could grow the fresh food that was impossible to get for her current home, at Ghost Ranch, 15 miles to the north.
And, then, there was the patio door: a recessed, dark, double door punctuating a long stretch of adobe wall. “That door is what made me buy this house,” O’Keeffe said. “I used to climb over the wall, just to look at that door.”
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Santa Fe, to whom the property had been donated, finally did agree to sell the house and surrounding three acres in December 1945, and it took three years to render it habitable as a Pueblo Revival-style hacienda. O’Keeffe lived briefly at the house for a few months near the end of 1948, and, when she moved permanently to New Mexico in June 1949, she divided her time between “the Abiquiu house” in winter/spring and Ghost Ranch in summer/fall.
O’Keeffe made at least 20 paintings and drawings of her patio door starting in 1946, ranging from the austere (extreme shadows, vanished ground lines) to the romantic (snowflakes, or a drifting leaf). “I’m always trying to paint that door — I never quite get it,” O’Keeffe said. “It’s a curse — the way I feel I must continually go on with that door.”
But when you visit the Abiquiu house, you discover, with some sadness, that this is a quite ordinary door.
So what was the necessity that O’Keeffe felt? No doubt the visual simplicity of the door compelled her, as well as its dramatic presence. The door is a primordial shape, much like the shells and bones and rocks that she collected and painted — all ordinary items she rendered onto the canvas with reverence and ritual.
After so many iterations, the patio door comes to resemble an icon floating in an expansive field, a reference to -– and maybe a stand-in for — the artist’s canvas on a gallery wall. Maybe it’s even a stand-in for the artist herself, a kind of self-portrait.
O’Keeffe’s door captures the legendary artist in all her maddening paradox: willfully opaque and irresistibly evocative. It’s a black hole of pure imaginative space. A glimpse into eternity, an invitation to what she called the “faraway.” O’Keeffe never stopped reaching toward that abyss, challenging herself as an artist to go ever deeper. “Whether you succeed or not is irrelevant,” she wrote. “There is no such thing. Making your unknown known is the important thing — and keeping the unknown always beyond you . . . ”