American Icons: Georgia O'Keeffe's Skull Paintings

Feature

Friday, November 12, 2010

Transcript

Georgia O'Keeffe's Cow Skulls feature card

This is life and death in the American desert.

“The men were all talking about the great American novel, the great American play,...the great American everything,” said Georgia O’Keeffe, who fled the East Coast art world for New Mexico. “So I thought . . . I’ll make it an American painting.” O’Keeffe painted cow and deer skulls floating over delicate abstract landscapes of the New Mexico desert. An art historian, a tour guide, and an interior designer explain the appeal of the skulls; a retiree tells how their magnetism drew her to settle in the Southwest.

"Georgia O'Keeffe's Skull Paintings" was produced by Ann Heppermann and Kara Oehler and edited by Emily Botein.  Composer and percussionist Aaron Siegel created music for the story.

Special thanks to Perry Miller Adato and WNET for use of audio from the documentary film: Georgia O'Keeffe.

 

Slideshow: Georgia O'Keeffe's World

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1986.
© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887–1986), From the Faraway, Nearby, 1937, Oil on canvas. 

During her trips to New Mexico, O’Keeffe often walked in the desert, picking up the sun-bleached bones she found there.  She even packed some of the bones in a barrel and sent them to herself at Lake George, New York, where she began her famous paintings.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1986.
© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887–1986), Red and Yellow Cliffs, 1940, Oil on canvas. 

O’Keeffe loved the New Mexico desert: “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 Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1986.
© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887–1986), Black Iris, 1926, Oil on canvas. 

Stanford Professor Emerita Wanda Corn says O’Keeffe’s skull paintings jolted a New York public that was accustomed to the flower paintings she had been producing for the last ten years.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Alfred Stieglitz Collection, Bequest of Georgia O'Keeffe, 1986.
© 2010 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York Photo courtesy of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Georgia O'Keeffe (American, 1887–1986), Cow's Skull: Red, White, and Blue, 1931, Oil on canvas. 

One of her most iconic works, O’Keeffe said this painting was, in part, a response to the search for the Great American Novel or the Great American Play by men in New York who, she felt, had never seen much of the country.

Courtesy of Erik Markow & Thom Norris

O’Keeffe’s skull paintings continue to inspire.  American artists Thom Norris and Erik Markow pay homage to O'Keeffe and the Southwest through their woven glass sculpture, Santa Fe Skull

Photo by Kara Oehler

Interior designer Kris Lajeskie in her Santa Fe, New Mexico studio. Lajeskie says O'Keeffe's paintings helped make cow skulls an essential element in the "Santa Fe Style."

Photo by Kara Oehler

A poster of O'Keeffe's famous Cow Skull: Red, White, and Blue hangs in the bathroom of Noreen Perlmutter's Santa Fe home.

Photo by Kara Oehler

Georgia O'Keeffe first came to Ghost Ranch in New Mexico in 1929.  A neighbor there gave her the skull of his favorite steer when it died so she could add it to her extensive bone collection.  O'Keeffe made a drawing of the skull and gave it to Ghost Ranch owner Arthur Pack as a gift – Pack adopted the artwork as the ranch’s logo.

Photo by Kara Oehler

O’Keeffe eventually purchased a small home on the grounds of Ghost Ranch, as well as a house down the road in Abiquiu.  She spent many years exploring and painting the surrounding desert environment.  Today, Ghost Ranch offers tours of the scenes and actual locations that Georgia O’Keeffe painted.

Photo by Kara Oehler

Looking down the road that passes O'Keeffe's Ghost Ranch home.

Photo by Kara Oehler

The tour bus at Ghost Ranch takes groups to the places and scenes that O'Keeffe painted and drives past Rancho de los Burros, the home she bought there in 1940.  Unlike O'Keeffe's Abiquiu home, the Ghost Ranch house is not open to the public.

Photo by Kara Oehler

Ghost Ranch Tour Coordinator Karen Butts leads the O'Keeffe landscape tour.  She holds a picture of O'Keeffe's Cedar Tree with Lavender Hills, 1937, before taking the group to the actual cedar tree the artist painted.

Photo by Kara Oehler

Butts points towards the site that inspired O'Keeffe to paint Hill, New Mexico in 1935.  She says O'Keeffe felt a sort of ownership for the New Mexico landscape and would often write to her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, about "my red hills."

Photo by Kara Oehler

From 1973 to 1979, Carol Merrill worked on weekends as O'Keeffe's librarian, secretary, cook, nurse, and companion. Merrill sits in front of O'Keeffe's favorite rock formation, Pedernal.  The artist frequently said: "If I paint Pedernal often enough, God will give it to me." Upon her death O'Keeffe had her ashes spread on her beloved mountain.

Photo by Kara Oehler

Merrill remembers how she and O'Keeffe would sit in the shade of this pinon tree – when it was still alive – during their daily walks.

Photo by Kara Oehler

The entrance to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  The museum opened in 1997 and remains the largest permanent collection of O'Keeffe's work in the world.

Contributors:

Emily Botein, Ann Heppermann and Kara Oehler

Comments [10]

Chaniqua from MIssissippi

WOW

Apr. 09 2014 11:46 AM
Patricia Hester

What about the pictures of flowers that Georgia O'Keefe painted. Why weren't they mentioned and described? Whenever I see her works, those flowers are what are displayed. Those were pictures of life, not death, but they were not mentioned at all.

Jul. 04 2013 02:55 PM
chandra

great!

Apr. 04 2011 03:57 PM
byoung

very nice!

Feb. 24 2011 03:20 PM
Trizia koelzer

Lovely

Feb. 13 2011 02:58 PM
Susan Bellantoni from Long Island, NY

Every time I think I've saturated my knowledge and interest in GO'K I realize that I haven't. Thank you for this wonderful piece on Georgia. I'm not surprised to learn the extent she has influenced our American vision of the Southwest, because she has continually been a source of inspiration and edification throughout my life. I've just returned from the Stieglitz, Steiken, Strand exhibit at the MET and highly recommend it for those who want to expand their horizons on GO'K's life and times. She has been and continues to be a personal icon and hero for me.

Jan. 28 2011 05:54 PM
Robert Patrick

Irma St. Paul as "Georgia" in my play, "The Beaux Arts Ball," Theatre for the new City, NYC, 1983, costume by Jeffrey Wallach, setting by Steve Lepree, photo by George Bartinieff
http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?pid=1258982&l=f6b6a53c1c&id=614794354

Nov. 13 2010 09:36 PM
Robert Patrick

Unpublished photos of Georgia O'Keeffe, from an estate catalog
http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=126237&id=614794354&l=4568b8e4f8

Nov. 13 2010 09:21 PM
Robert Patrick from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xM_8Mn9js5Y

Georgia O'Keeffe speech from my play, "The Beaux Arts Ball," spoken by irma St. Paule
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xM_8Mn9js5Y

Nov. 13 2010 09:13 PM
Dave Fredericks from NY

Georgia on my mind...

Oct. 25 2010 09:51 PM

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