V  P  R

Contemporary Poetry and Poetics




While Rust Red Hills offers a generally realistic view of the hills
near Abiquiu, it is O’Keeffe’s invention, stylization, abstraction
that makes the painting especially exciting to view and study. 
The hills appear solid as an enduring landscape feature
but also seem to writhe subtly, as if the rocks and earth
themselves transform visually into muscles and sinew. 

Georgia O’Keeffe’s Rust Red Hills from 1930 is one of the Brauer Museum of Art’s most beloved paintings, a masterpiece by the artist and a concrete example of the wisdom and prescience of the museum’s founding director, Richard Brauer.  Brauer purchased the painting in 1962 for the museum’s permanent collection; at that time, the price was modest because American art had not yet become desirable for collectors and because viewers were still gaining an appreciation for O’Keeffe’s contributions and creativity.  Rust Red Hills now stands as a monetarily and culturally valuable work, a true gem in the Brauer’s collection that dramatically depicts a New Mexico landscape that captured the artist’s imagination.
    Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) endures as a key figure in the history of art, the history and development of modern art in particular.  While Western art prior to the twentieth century primarily was preoccupied with representational or realistic goals, with artists striving to transcribe the scenes or subjects before them, modern artists of the twentieth century (in part reacting to the representational possibilities afforded by the camera and photography) sought instead to present in their works interpretive views that commented as much on the artists’ individual identities and states of mind as they offered literal likenesses of the selected subjects.  For early modern artists, abstraction gave them opportunities to see the world in new and fresh ways, sharing through their pieces their attitudes about objects or scenes that prompted or inspired them, with the actual vocabulary of painting or art making providing additional vehicles for metaphor and commentary.
    Early in her career, O’Keeffe explored the abstract possibilities of various natural forms, using them perhaps as commentaries on fundamental or primal states of being as well as investigations of coloristic and gestural effects.  She also painted New York cityscapes of expressive color and stylization, with such grand scenes speaking to the size of her ambition for her art and impulse toward abstraction.  O’Keeffe’s husband, the famed photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946), encouraged her in her efforts, praising her innovation as he did other pioneering modernists whom he championed and who were connected with his influential Manhattan gallery, An American Place.
    O’Keeffe’s marriage to Stieglitz faced significant problems, however, leading O’Keeffe to travel in 1929 without Stieglitz to New Mexico and the American Southwest.  This setting fascinated the artist, leading her to return every year before eventually settling permanently in 1949 in the New Mexican village of Abiquiu.  O’Keeffe’s discovery of the American Southwest as a source of lasting inspiration lies at the heart of a moving and inspiring story in art that continues to captivate viewers of her pictures and readers of her biography.  Here is an example of someone who truly looked deeply within and without before finding a place that enabled her to realize herself.
    Archival photographs of a 1931 O’Keeffe exhibition installation at An American Place show Rust Red Hills hanging among other fine pieces by the artist.  The painting was not indicated as having a title in this exhibition, although the artist did write the title on the reverse side of the painting, on the stretcher bars.  Also on the reverse side, O’Keeffe wrote her initials and then enclosed them with a star, indicating that this particular canvas was one of her personal favorites.  After Richard Brauer purchased the painting from a New York gallery, he wanted to establish for certain that the painting was indeed a product of O’Keeffe’s hand and so mailed to her in Abiquiu a black and white photograph of it, asking her to indicate whether she painted Rust Red Hills.  On the reverse side of the photograph, O’Keeffe wrote in cursive, “Yes, this is my painting,” and sent the photograph back to the museum where it sits today in the artist’s file.  O’Keeffe’s few words on the back of the photograph summon up images of the famously taciturn artist taking just a moment from creating or seeing in her Southwestern surroundings to acknowledge an old favorite before returning to work or continuing to commune with the natural environment around her.
    While Rust Red Hills offers a generally realistic view of the hills near Abiquiu, it is O’Keeffe’s invention, stylization, abstraction that makes the painting especially exciting to view and study.  The hills appear solid as an enduring landscape feature but also seem to writhe subtly, as if the rocks and earth themselves transform visually into muscles and sinew.  By showing the grooves and striations of the hills and simultaneously generalizing the overall surface and contours of this landscape scene, the artist is able to infuse a representational painting with a narrative aspect.  True, the hills do look like O’Keeffe presents them, but they also in this painting breathe with life and suggest an animating force, a nurturing and nourishing entity that not only gives life to these hills but also gives life to the earth itself.  O’Keeffe may on one level have sought to capture a likeness, but her years of refining a modernist vision enabled her to convey a message more universal about the strength and fecundity of a living landscape capable of revelations with each passing season, each shift of daily light.  Through the intensely personal came a grand statement, and through the discovery of an intensely personal geographical connection came a most potent abstracted image that seemed to give sense and shape to all she had done before, and that indicated fruitful future directions.  The generalized abstract compositions of her early career seemed remarkably to foreshadow what O’Keeffe would find in the Southwest, and what she did find in the Southwest were subjects that spoke simply, elegantly, quietly to themes of decay and renewal, change and endurance, life and death.
    The Brauer Museum receives frequent requests from museums nationally and internationally to borrow this painting.  It has been part of exhibitions in Ireland, Spain, Canada, and throughout the American Southwest.  Viewers delight in seeing this modestly sized landscape in an earthy palette that demonstrates the artist seeing a fond place with feeling, carefully capturing the surface features but also letting the brush abbreviate, simplify until firm hills give way to an earth that lives and gives life, that moves in response to those people that think the planet is but a neutral setting for their activities.  O’Keeffe’s work in general seems to captivate viewers because it shows them that things are more than they seem, that the spiritual drily and dustily drifts through human awareness to assert itself occasionally in passages of color, voids, and rolling hills that seem engorged with blood.
    Rust Red Hills will soon return from an extended period away from the Brauer Museum, where it traveled to New Mexico, Washington DC, and California.  When it returns, the Brauer staff will be working with a master framer to frame the painting in a style more in keeping with the way the artist framed her other paintings.  Richard Brauer has endorsed this change and continues to delight in the way this painting grows in popularity and stands as a particularly noteworthy example of the artist’s mature style.  Brauer is to be congratulated on seeing this landscape and understanding that O’Keeffe’s desire to reach the essences of things led her to a place that rewarded all the sensitivity she brought to it.


© by Gregg Hertzlieb


Contributor's note
Next page
Table of contents
VPR home page

[Best read with browser font preferences set at 12 pt. Times New Roman]