With a major retrospective on the pioneer of 20th-century art Georgia O’Keeffe pulling in the crowds at Tate Modern, we take a look at one of her two homes in New Mexico - her adobe dwelling and studio in Abiquiu - and examine how its modified vernacular style reflects the artist and her personality
Words by: Anthea Gerrie
Let a mid-century contractor with radical ideas loose on a crumbling, 18th-century, south-west American adobe, and you could be asking for disaster. Or at least a dissonance with its surroundings in New Mexico, where building in the vernacular is pretty well a religion. Yet Georgia O'Keeffe's home and studio at Abiquiu, an hour's drive north of Santa Fe, is enhanced by daring modifications unimaginable when it was built in 1735. The house, all ro unded corners and desert-toned adobe on the outside, in keeping with local tradition, was made to dazzle with bright light on the inside where it was opened up - or even left roofless.
Georgia O'Keeffe with a canvas from her series, Pelvis Series Red With Yellow. Image - Getty, Photographer - Tony Viccaaro
And somehow, despite being left empty for 30 years after the artist's death, it strikes the visitor as a living home in which O'Keeffe could appear at any moment with a basket of salad leaves from the garden, or a fine pebble to add to her rock collection. You can imagine her getting a canister of the tea she loved out of one of the recessed cupboards installed in what was one of the USA's first fitted kitchens half a century ago.
O'Keeffe's painting In the Patio No IV (1948). The Georgia O'Keeffe Museum became the steward of the artist's Abiquiu home and studio in 2006. Courtesy Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Dacs London
You'd be forgiven for thinking the first bold moves to modify the old house for modern living in 1947 were down to the artist herself. After all, O'Keeffe had already imposed her own vision on the landscape where she spent the last half of her life, not only celebrating its peaks and mesas but elevating to cult status the skulls and antlers that to locals were just desert detritus until she celebrated them on canvas.
The patio at O'Keeffe's Abiquiu home. When she first viewed the ruin, the wall and door was a deal-clincher for her. 'It was something I had to have,' she wrote. Courtesy Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Dacs London
Yet she worshipped living things - plants, organic produce and her beloved pet chows - as avidly as dead bones, and it was the need for water to grow and tend that drove her purchase of the Abiquiu house, her second permanent home in the area she described with satisfaction as 'at the tail end of the earth'. Bagged only after 15 years of negotiation, it was where she lived with protection from the elements in winter and gardened and harvested year-round while retaining her first, Pueblo Revival home up the road at Ghost Ranch in beautiful, but wild and forbiddingly dry, desert.
Between 1948 and 1956 alone she made 18 paintings of the patio's long wall with a door to one side. Courtesy Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Dacs London
Maria Chabot, not an architect or professional contractor but a young local writer befriended by O'Keeffe when she moved to New Mexico, had been called on to oversee radical alterations to the Ghost Ranch home, but she was minded to turn down the new renovation project, expecting a fight over differing visions. 'You'll have to do it yourself, you know... I fear to undertake it because what I would do would be me,' Chabot wrote to the artist in 1946, soon after O'Keeffe bought the house.
In the Roofless Room sunlight casts hard shadows from the open beams. In here O'Keeffe kept her sculpture Abstraction. Courtesy Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Dacs London
However, excited by the enormity of the project, Chabot nevertheless started outlining plans to the artist too preoccupied by her coming retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art to question them. And when O'Keeffe's husband Alfred Stieglitz had a stroke later that year, the artist was detained in New York for much of the next three years, allowing Chabot to realise her own broad vision for renovation.
The all-white studio, with an added picture window, was modified by a cleaner who scrubbed off the paint from the roof beams. Courtesy Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Dacs London
O'Keeffe and Chabot exchanged letters regularly about various aspects of the renovation of the house and garden, but O'Keeffe could not devote a great deal of attention to them, say Barbara Buhler Lynes and Agapita Judy Lopez, respectively curator at the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum and O'Keeffe's secretary, in their book on the history of the project, Georgia O'Keeffe and her Houses. Emboldened by her client's absence, Chabot had within a year renewed the adobe wall around the property, rebuilt walls and most of the roof and levelled the garden, making the house fit for O'Keeffe to move into in 1949, three years after Stieglitz died.
The Abiquiu kitchen was ahead of its time, with space for visitors to chat with the cook, a sofa, dishwasher and a large range oven. Courtesy Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Dacs London
While many homeowners are drawn to a property by a quirky feature, few focus on a seemingly insignificant feature such as an external door. But it was the deal-maker for O'Keeffe when she first stumbled on the property: 'As I climbed and walked about in the ruin I found a patio... with a long wall with a door on one side. That wall with a door in it was something I had to have,' she wrote - and she made 18 paintings of it between 1948 and 1956 alone. The patio is approached by the house's most appealing original feature, the zaguan (a scallop-edged, heavy wooden door attached to the patio by a beam-roofed corridor), its wall greeting guests with a huge pair of antlers and one of O'Keeffe's prized rock collections.
The pantry, an indicator that O'Keefe was a keen cook and preserver. Courtesy Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Dacs London
But more intriguing than the patio is the interior's Roofless Room, an ever-changing work of art in itself as sunlight enters through the open beams, casting ever-shifting shadows. Rather than celebrating its lines on canvas, O'Keeffe enjoyed observing this room in which she liked to stash some of her favourite things, including more rocks and bones and her 1946 sculpture Abstraction. The Zen-garden effect is accentuated by the gravel that the artist chose to cover the mud floor with. Minimal intervention in renovating the de facto atrium is counterpointed by the radical re-do of what would become O'Keeffe's bedroom, where a steel joist was installed to support huge picture windows.
External view of O'Keeffe's bedroom. Radical steps were taken here to install huge picture windows. Courtesy Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Dacs London
They sit at right angles overlooking the view that she described as 'the road towards Espanola, Santa Fe and the world.' The kitchen is proudly modern, exemplifying today's ideal of a large room to hang out with the cook, with a sofa as well as a large range stove, dishwasher and Le Creuset cookware all testament to a keen cook and preserver. But the ancient architecture plays a vital role in the enhancement, with its extra-deep internal walls allowing Fifties' white metal kitchen cabinets by Sears Roebuck to be almost completely recessed.
Looking out from the bedroom, where the picture windows afford a spectacular view. Courtesy Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Dacs London
Although the studio is less white than it was when O'Keeffe boldly painted its roof beams - a local who came to clean them scrubbed the white paint off, presumably shocked by this decorative break with tradition - it remains bright, thanks to Chabot's reluctant agreement to her client's wish for skylights as well as a huge picture window.
The bedroom itself is sparsely furnished, containing no more than what O'Keefe needed. Courtesy Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Dacs London
Once she had a habitable home at the Abiquiu house, as intimate and inward-looking as the Ghost Ranch home was remote and outward-looking, O'Keefe became sufficiently involved to design her own furniture. She favoured plywood, which as Lopez points out 'was a new medium in the late Forties when [she] moved to New Mexico' and used it for everything from dining tables to footstools. 'The dining table was her design - two narrow-cut pieces of plywood sitting atop two hinged V-shaped plywood panels.'
Off of the living room is the dining room, with a table designed by O'Keeffe. Courtesy Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Dacs London
While happy to live with iconic pieces, including an Eames chair in her living room which was a birthday gift from the Eameses, an Eero Saarinen coffee table and a Noguchi lampshade she hung over one of the bare light bulbs, O'Keeffe never kept anything she couldn't live with, returning a Mies van der Rohe table and replacing it with one of her own design she deemed more comfortable. It lives in a sitting room, the only real nod to O'Keeffe's interest in an elegant place to relax with friends.
An Eames chair, a gift from the designers, sits in the living room, but O'Keeffe made much of the furniture for her home herself. Courtesy Georgia O'Keeffe Museum – Dacs London
As she wrote: 'My house in Abiquiu is pretty empty; only what I need is in it', and her chroniclers echo this with their comments that 'the uncluttered spaces and simple furnishings O'Keeffe demanded demonstrate how her life in New Mexico was itself a component of the minimalistic aesthetic that is one of the distinguishing features of her art.'