Many of Georgia O'Keeffe's favorite subjects to paint were remote, hostile environments often hundreds of miles from her home -- or anywhere else. To reach them she had to camp. The more out of the way and inhospitable the place, the more she liked to visit.
"I don't know why this country gets me the way it does -- but I just get a feeling of being drunk with it," O'Keefe said.
The paintings, sketches and pastels that were a result of these camping trips, the camping gear itself, as well as photographs by Ansel Adams and Elliot Porter, who were invited along, are on exhibit at the National Cowgirl Museum and Hall of Fame through Sept. 6 in an exhibit titled "Georgia O'Keeffe and the Faraway Nature and Image."
The museum is justly proud of this curatorial effort in conjunction with the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M. It is the first time a history museum has mounted an O'Keeffe show, it is the first time that the camping objects have been displayed, it is the first time the camping trips have been explored, and it is the first time that many of the photographs are being displayed.
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The paintings, though, are very familiar. There are the massive pink rocks that reach toward the sky and split just below the horizon making the suggestive V shape that reappears in so many of O'Keeffe's works. There are also her successive depictions of the roiling gray mounds of the Black Place and the towering spires of the White Place, as she called the locations.
These, too, are charged with an oblique sexuality. O'Keefe called these areas "the faraway." The sites offered her the solitude that she needed to create.
Images vs. reality
However, the paintings' soft shapes and pastel colors are at complete odds with the actual terrain. The locations are rocky and barren and, as many of O'Keeffe's first camping expeditions were made during her summer visits, blisteringly hot.
This is obvious in the photographs by Adams and Porter. Yet O'Keeffe always looks like a happy camper in their photographs, smiling contentedly as she paints or gazes at the walls of rock, mentally composing paintings.
The two photographers' work offers interesting support to the exhibition. Adams' photographs are snapshots of the outing; printed small, they are the sort of vacation pictures that everyone wants as a souvenir. Like O'Keeffe, Porter turned his lens on the landscape, and his shots illustrate the way two artists view the same space, producing dramatically different results.
The camping gear O'Keeffe used was rudimentary: an Army-issue sleeping bag, some old tarps, an assortment of banged-up pots and pans, containers for transporting water, a low folding table and two wooden chairs with rush seats that look preschool size.
This is all on display, and there is even a photograph by Maria Chabot, one of O'Keeffe's frequent camping companions, that shows the artist sitting in one of the tiny chairs by the campfire at the Black Place in 1944.
Also on display are O'Keeffe's camping clothes: her blue jeans with pearl snaps on the pockets, a chambray work shirt and her white canvas shoes impregnated with the fine red dirt of northern New Mexico. There is something so dear about the shoes and the neatly folded clothes; they make a little landscape of their own, with the simplified shapes, in a limited palette of colors, tinged with the sands of campouts past.
They add a resonance to the exhibit that will pierce your heart. It's a good thing they are under glass, as the temptation to reach out and stroke something worn by O'Keeffe while whispering a silent thank you is almost impossible to suppress.
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113