As soon as I saw [New Mexico], that was my country. I’d never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. There’s something that’s in the air.
When Georgia O’Keeffe, also known as ‘The Mother of American Modernism’, first set eyes on the landscape of New Mexico in 1929, she instantly knew she needed to make it her home. Captivated by the unforgiving sunlight, expansive skies and striking beauty of the high-desert landscape, she started to spend nearly every summer and fall at a property called 'Ghost Ranch' in Northern New Mexico.
There, she collected rocks and bones from the desert and transferred them onto the canvas. O'Keeffe explored and painted the land she had come to love so much from her Ford Model A, that she had customized into a mobile studio. She often vocalized her love for the barren surroundings:
Such a beautiful, untouched lonely feeling place, such a fine part of what I call the 'Faraway'. It is a place I have painted before ... even now I must do it again.
In 1940, she became the owner of a very small piece of Ghost Ranch land: a house and seven acres. But 'Rancho de los Burros' was a summer place and O’Keeffe wanted a garden as well as a winter home. So eventually she bought three acres in the village of Abiquiu with a crumbling adobe home. Portions of this house are believed to date back to the 1730s, and it was already in a deteriorating condition when Georgia O’Keeffe first spotted it in the 1930s.
At the time, it was owned by the Roman Catholic church, which did not want to sell it. After persisting for years, it eventually relented, and O’Keeffe was able to purchase the property in 1945. At that point, the roof of this Pueblo Revival–style hacienda had collapsed in many spots, allowing nature to lay waste to its walls.
Even though the 5,000-square-foot structure needed a lot of love and restoration, the artist was enchanted by its three-acre parcel of land, which offered ample space for her to grow her own fruits and vegetables as well as stunning vistas for her to paint. In a letter to Arthur Dove she expressed her enthusiasm for her New Mexican surroundings:
I wish you could see what I see out the window—the earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north—the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky . . . pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull green cedars—and a feeling of much space—It is a very beautiful world.
To oversee the home’s restoration, O’Keeffe called upon her assistant, Maria Chabot. She became responsible for the layout of the studio, home, and garden, but the style of the interior was dictated by O’Keeffe herself. Her original design was to showcase white walls and bare surfaces, but by the early 1970s, she’d begun to introduce warm earth tones as well. She however maintained her preference for sleek, modernist furnishings. Eventually, the Abiquiu home would come to reflect the same rigorous simplicity that defines her paintings. She said:
. . . inch by inch it is becoming - my house - something that feels like my shell to live in . . .
Initially, O’Keeffe lived in her Abiquiu house for only half of each year, spending the rest of her time at Ghost Ranch. Finally, after 4 years of renovation, the Abiquiu hacienda had become the more comfortable of the two homes. She told a reporter:
When I bought it, it was totally uninhabitable. Architecturally, it is not a masterpiece, but a house that grew.
With its abundant light coming in from modernist skylights and sweeping views of the Chama River Valley, the residence served as inspiration for approximately 30 of O’Keeffe’s greatest paintings. Even during the winter months, O’Keeffe often painted from inside her bedroom window that overlooked the valley. Also included in the compound was a smaller outbuilding, which was her main studio.
In these spaces, Georgia O'Keeffe led a life of Zen-like simplicity. Her minimalist aesthetic, rooted in her appreciation of Asian art and the design-driven teachings of artist Arthur Wesley Dow, is evident throughout the property. Its Southwestern architecture, the assemblage of found objects and the sleek modern furnishings make for a captivating combination.
The dining room features many traditional touches, including the original rafters (vigas), a mud plaster floor, and a Navajo rug, while a Noguchi lamp (a gift to O’Keeffe from the artist himself) hanging above the table provides an unexpected contrast. O’Keeffe was insistent on these types of contradictions and deviations from tradition, stating in an interview that:
I didn’t want a Spanish house; I didn’t want an Indian house, [or] a Mexican house; I wanted my house!
Her daily routine was marked by simple rituals and a desire for inner clarity that allowed her to be fully present in each moment. She would rise early and take a long walk with her dogs before breakfast. After breakfast, she would venture back into the desert for a day of painting.
The house remained O’Keeffe’s primary residence until 1984 when she moved to Santa Fe two years prior to her death at age 98. In 1998 the property was declared a National Historic Landmark.
You can still visit the Abiquiu Home and Studio today. Kept in much of its original state you feel as if the artist might return to the home at any moment. The space and its surrounding landscapes offer a unique look into the life of one of America’s greatest painters, who was so deeply in tune with the natural world.