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Fifth Avenue & The High Road to Taos: Georgia O'Keeffe's Long Road Home


Read the revised and updated 2012 version here.

When Mabel Dodge invited Georgia O'Keeffe to spend the summer with her in Taos in 1929, O'Keeffe accepted the invitation without first consulting her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, a dominating spouse. She spent the summer there without him anyway, awakening to the possibility she had found a new place that seemed like home.
"She wrote to Henry McBride from Taos in 1929, 'You know I never feel at home in the East like I do out here-and finally feeling in the right place again-I feel like myself-and I like it- . . . Out the very large window to rich green alfalfa fields-then the sage brush and beyond-a most perfect mountain-it makes me feel like flying-and I don't care what becomes of art.' - Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters by Jack Cowart and Juan Hamilton

Stieglitz was an aging New Yorker, embedded in the cultural life of the city, and far-away New Mexico was a place best left to his wife. In February of 1930 he exhibited her New Mexico-inspired paintings at An American Place at 509 Madison Avenue, his third and final gallery in New York. The gallery presented O'Keeffe's New Mexico paintings every year until the gallery's closing in 1950.

Any artist would have relished O'Keeffe's life - time alone in New Mexico to paint a serious body of work as well as a successful artist-gallerist spouse back in New York to exhibit them on Madison Avenue every year. In addition, the two often enjoyed time at the expansive Stieglitz estate up on Lake George. But...

Enter Radio City Music Hall (1260 Avenue of the Americas), an odd tangent on our Fifth Avenue & The High Road to Taos walk. In the spring of 1932 O'Keeffe accepted a $1500 commission to paint a mural on the walls of the Ladies Powder Room. Wanting to paint something big, she accepted the challenge over her husband's objections. By October, after spending the summer in Canada, she grew frustrated with some technical difficulties with the mural and abandoned the project. In early 1933 she became ill and was admitted to Doctor's Hospital for psychoneurosis, a condition often brought on by acute stress.

Meanwhile, Stieglitz, who was 23 years older than O'Keeffe, had started a relationship with a young married woman, Dorothy Norman, his gallery manager, an artist, arts patron and a proponent of the photographic arts. He started taking photos of her, the same sort of sensational erotic images he made of O'Keeffe early in their marriage. The two spent a lot of time in the darkroom together. All this while his wife is sick. O'Keeffe knew what was going on.

O'Keeffe returned to New Mexico in the summer of 1934, first staying at Ghost Ranch seventy miles west of Taos, and until Stieglitz's death she returned there most every summer. In 1936 she and Stieglitz moved from the Shelton Hotel to a penthouse apartment at 405 East 54th St., a place nearer Stieglitz's gallery. In 1942 they moved to a small apartment at 59 East 54th St., even closer. During the summer of 1945 she bought an adobe house on three acres in Abiquiu. In 1946, Stieglitz, after a massive stroke, died in New York at the age of 82.

After spending a couple of years in New York, consumed with settling the Stieglitz estate, O'Keeffe permanently moved to New Mexico in 1949, dividing her time between Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. She had spent thirty years going back and forth from her home in the west to an apartment in midtown Manhattan, and she didn't have to do that anymore. She died March 6, 1986 in Santa Fe at the age of 98.

I've learned from this story that finding your own ranch buys you an extra 17 years.

Image: interior, New York Marriott Hotel East Side (formerly the Shelton Hotel), 525 Lexington Avenue at 49th St.

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