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Home Is Where Her Art Is

Georgia O'Keeffe found inspiration in the solitude of New Mexico. At last, her work has a home there, in a new museum that bears her name.

July 13, 1997|Suzanne Muchnic | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

SANTA FE, N.M. — Every week could be called Art Week in this distinctive southwestern state capital where cultural activities overshadow governmental affairs and the arts are closely tied to commerce. With a population of a mere 60,000, the city has an inordinately large number of artists, museums, galleries, art fairs and Native American craft shops--not to mention the renowned Santa Fe Opera and Chamber Music Festival.

But this week really is Santa Fe Art Week. Featuring a museum ribbon-cutting, gala receptions, exhibition openings, art and photography fairs, art lectures and musical performances, the citywide program is business as usual, only much more so.

The central event is the opening Thursday of the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum, an exquisitely renovated adobe structure in the city's historic center. Billed as the first American museum devoted exclusively to a female artist of national stature, the privately funded institution focuses on a figure of mythic proportions with a huge public following. Adding a substantial component to an increasingly active arts scene, the new museum is sure to be a tourist attraction.

"From a Chamber of Commerce point of view, of course it's a great asset, but the impact of the O'Keeffe museum is broader than that," said Stuart Ashman, director of Santa Fe's Museum of Fine Arts. "Santa Fe is a growing community, and this is indicative of the direction the community is taking--not toward smokestacks. In terms of recognizing Georgia O'Keeffe, the museum is long overdue, because she is an iconic figure as a woman painter who had the courage and determination to work in a remote area."

O'Keeffe, who was born in Wisconsin in 1887, studied art in New York and Chicago. She taught art in Texas but moved to New York in 1918 and married photographer and art entrepreneur Alfred Stieglitz in 1924. She first visited New Mexico in 1917 and began making regular trips there in 1929. She bought an abandoned adobe house on three acres in Abiquiu, about 40 miles northwest of Santa Fe, remodeled it and lived there from 1949 to 1984, two years before she died, at 98.

"Going to Abiquiu from Santa Fe was a day trip in a Model A on a dirt road, yet she made paintings that were sold in New York," Ashman said. "Her museum could be in New York, but people associate her with the West because of her imagery--bleached bones, desert colors, the landscape and the quality of light. She's larger than life, and when you see the paintings, it's rightly so. She was just enough ahead of her time, yet not too far out, to bring people along with her."

Establishing an O'Keeffe museum in New Mexico might seem to be a natural development, particularly since the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation--charged with broadening understanding of her work and making it available to the public--is based in Abiquiu. But the foundation--established in 1989 to help resolve a legal battle between the artist's longtime assistant and principal heir, Juan Hamilton, and two of O'Keeffe's relatives--has devoted its efforts to distributing the 400 works in its holding, maintaining O'Keeffe's house and producing a comprehensive catalog of her work.

The foundation has renovated the house and conducts tours there, but it will be turned over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Most of the foundation's art has been disbursed to museums, including the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The foundation and the National Gallery are jointly producing a catalogue raisonne of O'Keeffe's work, to be issued in fall 1999.

One of the funders of the publication is the Burnett Foundation of Fort Worth--and therein lies the story of the O'Keeffe museum. Anne Marion, a Texas heiress who is president of the Burnett Foundation and the wife of John Marion, retired chairman of Sotheby's auction house, became intimately acquainted with O'Keeffe's work in the 1960s when her mother, Anne Burnett, bought two paintings, "Pelvis Series, Red With Yellow" (1945) and "Horse's Skull With White Rose" (1931), directly from the artist.

Following her mother's example while developing her own taste, Anne Marion later purchased additional O'Keeffe paintings, including "White Calla Lily With Red Background" (1928), "Black Hollyhock With Blue Larkspur" (1928) and "Jimson Weed" (1932).

"About four or five years ago, Anne became interested in doing something with O'Keeffe here," John Marion said in an interview at the new museum. "It seemed to her and to me that it was criminal, almost, that there were no O'Keeffes of any note to be seen in the city." (The Museum of Fine Arts has 15 relatively minor works by the artist.)

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