Looking at the New Mexico desert, Georgia O’Keeffe found a new home. In the thirteenth Postcard piece, Emily Garbutt considers O’Keeffe’s vivid, evocative painting, Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II, 1930, and asks when she will have the opportunity, post-lockdown, to survey a foreign landscape.
I saw Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II for the first time at Tate Modern’s Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition in early September 2016. The gallery was busy and bustling so I couldn’t stand in front of it for long, but I tried to absorb as much of it as I could, letting my eyes feast on the colours – the blues and the pinks and the browns. Now, in May 2020, a postcard I bought from the exhibition gift shop of the same painting is blu-tacked to my wall. It sits in my eyeline, directly above my desk. Working from home, I’ve been spending a lot of time at this desk lately and have spent a lot of time gazing at O’Keeffe’s interpretation of the New Mexico desert.
Best known for her – traditionally, and maybe deliberately, misinterpreted – flowers, I find O’Keeffe’s landscapes equally, if not more, visually rewarding. I find them calming to look at, and New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II is no exception. The scorched earth rolls into infinity, soft curves like a stomach or a breast. When I look at it, I wonder when I will next be able to survey a foreign landscape, or any landscape at all. I wonder when I will be able to stand at the top of Primrose Hill and see the dome of St Paul’s if the day is clear, or watch the rolling coastline out of a train window.
Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II is one of O’Keeffe’s earliest paintings of New Mexico. She first visited the area in summer 1929: “When I got to New Mexico: that was mine. As soon as I saw it: that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly.” The painting depicts the view across the Rio Grande Valley from the ranch of her friend, Marie Tudor Garland. I find comfort in the image. One day I will go somewhere new, somewhere the likes of which I have never seen before, and I will feel that it fits to me exactly.
O’Keeffe spent most of her summers living and working in New Mexico after that, returning to New York in the winter to exhibit the work she’d made during her warm months in the desert. After her skylines of the 1920s, her paintings suddenly opened out. Instead of metal and brick, there was sand and bones and sky. Three years after the death of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, she left New York for good and made New Mexico her permanent home in 1949. She stayed there until her death in 1986.
Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II, stuck above my desk, makes me think of life before lockdown, and it makes me think about what life might be like after lockdown. But I also think about life as it is right now. The painting is a solitary image; talking about New Mexico, aged 96, in an interview with Andy Warhol, O’Keeffe said: “I have lived up there at the end of the world by myself a long time. You walk around with your thing out in the field and nobody cares. It’s nice.”
I’m capable of spending a lot of time by myself, but I haven’t had to for a while. Not out of choice, anyway. When lockdown was first announced, I was out of practice. I’m not in lockdown alone – I live with my parents (and our dog), but I’m still lonely. Would it be different if I could look out of my window and see undulating New Mexico desert, rather than the roofs of a dozen suburban houses? Something about the closeness and compactness of the town in which I live makes lockdown all the more lonely – is it easier to be alone when there is no one else around?
When I look at Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico / Out Back of Marie’s II, I am reminded that at some point I will be able to spend time alone out of choice. Eventually, I will be able to reclaim my voluntary solitude. Like O’Keeffe, I will be able look out at a new landscape and think, “it fits me exactly.”
About Emily Garbutt
Emily Garbutt is a journalist based in London, specialising in the arts and pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @emilylgarbutt and Instagram @emilylgarbutt.
This piece was commissioned as part of Postcards in Isolation
In times of loss and separation, art can be a source of inspiration, solace and connection. In her self-conceived series, Postcards in Isolation, writer and editor Rochelle Roberts has turned to the art on her bedroom wall to reflect on the difficulties quarantine and social distancing presents. Looking at artists as disparate as Claude Cahun, Dorothy Cross, Eileen Agar and Dorothea Tanning, Roberts has explored the sadness, uncertainty and joy of life in lockdown, and demonstrated how art can help us grapple with such feelings. As a guest editor for Lucy Writers, Roberts now wants to open the series up to other writers. Is there a postcard or a work of art that speaks to you at this time? If so, send your submissions to Rochelle via email@example.com and see here for more information.