Georgia O’Keeffe’s Door

okeeffe patio door | MyGeorgiaOKeeffe.com

In the Patio III, by Georgia O’Keeffe, 1948. Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation. © Georgia O’Keeffe Museum.

In honor of Women’s History Month 2015, my essay on Georgia O’Keeffe was published 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.

But when you visit the Abiquiu house, you discover, with some sadness, that this is a quite ordinary door.

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.

O’Keeffe’s door captures the legendary artist in all her maddening paradox: willfully opaque and irresistibly evocative.

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 . . . ”

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2 Responses to Georgia O’Keeffe’s Door

  1. Peg Runnels 09/07/2015 at 8:17 pm #

    Well written and evocative, Ann. A friend and I who both adored O’Keefe traveled to New Mexico and visited Abiquiu in about 1987. We parked in front of the adobe house, and a figure in grey appeared at the window. Aware that O’Keefe took no truck with visitors, we quickly left, wondering whether we had seen The Great One or her sister, whom we knew lived with her at that time. We had just read an anecdote about a visitor who knocked other door and said, “I just wanted to see you”, to which O’Keefe said, “Well now you have” and closed the door. Thanks for evoking this sweet memory. I look forward to your book. Peg Runnels

    p.s. Your class I took years ago on “How to Write an Irresistible Proposal” has continued to be a resource for me.

    • Ann Daly 09/07/2015 at 8:21 pm #

      Hi, Peg! That’s a *great* story. Who knows who you saw…. So glad the course is still useful!

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