Friday, November 4, 2016
NEW MEXICO DIARY -- E Georgia O'Keefe -- the history of a Dude Ranch -- an abandoned cabin in the wilderness -- "Off with their Heads! -- a 1991 Oscar-Winning comedy (Best supporting Actor)
I’m not really a fan of Georgia O’Keefe. In my view, her paintings are ornamental, for the most part, colorful things that would grace an expensive interior in the Santa Monica mountains or hang well in the conference room of a corporation that makes brand-name jeans or cross-training shoes. There is no doubt that some of her paintings are persuasive and have great authority – but, in those cases, the originals of the objects painted (cow skulls or massive calla lilies) would also possess significant visual appeal.
My coolness toward O’Keefe’s work results, in part, from early and casual familiarity with a number of her paintings. In the seventies, when I attended the university, O’Keefe’s star was in eclipse: figurative art of the kind that she produced was thought to be naive, sentimental, uninteresting. (Even a figurative artist as great as Max Beckmann was pretty much disregarded.) The University had a small art gallery located in one of the upper loges in Northrup Auditorium, a dowdy collection of small canvases, most of them by regional artists. At least, a half-dozen paintings by Georgia O’Keefe were in that collection keeping company with minor Adirondack impressionists and murky ashcan-school paintings by people like George Bellows and Robert Henri. A gallery displayed some paintings of farm and prairie scenes by John Steuert Curry and Thomas Hart Benton and, there were pictures by Marsden Hartley and Edward Hopper, then, also regarded as anomalies, artists with merely regional appeal. (I have since concluded that Hopper and Hartley occupy the first-rank of American painters and have international significance.) O’Keefe’s pictures of eroded hills, bones, and flowers were pretty but didn’t really speak to me. This may be due to the fact that I walked past those pictures a hundred times, iconic examples of her work, without more than a glance in their direction. In effect, her canvases were tainted by their proximity to other works in the gallery that I knew to be sententious, obvious, and ineptly crafted. In those days, markedly more sexist than now, O’Keefe was also regarded as adjunct to her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz – and a number of his camera-works were also in the collection. (These works included nude studies of Miss O’Keefe – thus, her cachet as a painter was further diminished by the sophomoric, but significant, sense that we had all seen her naked.)
In Santa Fe, Georgia O’Keefe occupies a role midway between muse and saint. New Mexico likes its Santos and, so, O’Keefe is regarded as a kind of holy woman, someone who labored in sacred isolation for her art. In this respect, O’Keefe’s role in the popular imagination is similar to that of Frida Kahlo. Both women worked in a fussy and colorful precisionist style, were resolutely figurative in their paintings, and had domineering, larger-than-life husbands – both are associated with the old Southwest. Both painters were striking, unusually beautiful women with a stormy fashion sense – we think of them sweeping across the sage and dunes in their black cloaks. But there is a one significant difference. Copyright law is uncertain and only indifferently enforced in old Mexico. Accordingly, there are a million different images of Kahlo and her works on-sale south of the border, reproductions both fine and tawdry, tee-shirts, souvenir crockery, parodies and knock-offs and knock-offs of knock-offs. In Mexico City, it seems, that you can’t walk a dozen yards without encountering ten reproductions of Kahlo images or pictures of the artist herself. O’Keefe’s estate keeps a much tighter rein on the images that she made. (For instance, the emblem for the Ghost Ranch, a white, minutely rendered cow’s skull in a arrowhead-shaped cartouche is copyrighted – the logo appears only with the permission of the O’Keefe estate.) Furthermore, O’Keefe’s paintings didn’t enjoy much respect even a quarter century ago – accordingly, the pictures are held by second- and third-tier museums since they could be acquired within the rather limited budgets of those places. Now, the canvases are very valuable and museums like the Des Moines Center for Fine Arts or the Indianapolis Art Museum aren’t likely to part with them. This results in a paradox: in Georgia O’Keefe country, that is, Santa Fe and Taos, there are almost no paintings by this artist anywhere in evidence. (An exception is the overpriced and under-stocked O’Keefe museum in Santa Fe.) Photographs of the severe-looking O’Keefe in her trademark black shawl are ubiquitous, but we don’t have access to the reason that she is so famous – that is, the paintings on which her reputation is built.
Promotional materials imply that the Ghost Ranch, where O’Keefe lived for half of the year after Stieglitz’ death, is a kind of sacred pilgrimage site, a holy place akin to a monastery or convent. This is profoundly misleading. Ghost Ranch, during the time it was O’Keefe’s place of hermitage, was a Dude Ranch. And the Wisconsin-raised O’Keefe, although rooted in northern New Mexico when she died, began her connections with Abiquiu and the Ghost Ranch as a dude – or, I suppose, I should say "dudette." (Another term for a female dude is "dudine.")
Carol Stanley was a wealthy young woman from Massachusetts, related to international diplomats and an accomplished concert pianist. Accordingly to legend, she fell in love with violinist employed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. She was a poor judge of men, a trait that dogged her all her life long. The love affair was disastrous and Miss Stanley traveled west in 1910, supposedly to put as much mileage as possible between herself and the venue of the unhappy liaison. In the deserts of northern Arizona, she met the Wetherill family, the ranchers who had first explored, and discovered, the cave dwellings at Mesa Verde and the ruins at Chaco Canyon. Stanley stayed as a guest at the hotel and dude ranch that the Wetherills operated at Kayenta. She learned to ride and traveled long distances on horseback, riding into the canyons and sandstone arch country near Moab, meeting the Navajo in Monument Valley, and venturing into the Grand Canyon. It soon became apparent that Stanley was, in some ways, more intrepid and enterprising than the guides assigned to lead her through the wilderness.
In 1916, Stanley stayed at a Dude Ranch in the Jemez Mountains in New Mexico. With a cowboy guide, Richard Pfafferle, she rode to some of the most remote canyons in the southwest, Canyon de Chelley in Northeast Arizona and the Canyon de los Muertos in New Mexico. Stanley and Pffafferle fell in love and were married. Together, they established a Dude Ranch called San Gabriel midway between Taos and Santa Fe. At this place, they met the formidable Mabel Dodge Luhan, the doyenne of the art’s community at Taos (herself married to a Native American) and artists like Willa Cather. Pffafferle had a taste of whiskey and gambling. Most of the time, he lost money but, according to a story often told, he won the Ghost Ranch property from its owner, one of Salazar family members, in a poker game. (The Salazar family had grazed a herd as large as 3000 sheep on the ranch.) Around 1930, Carol Stanley filed for divorce from Pffaferle, left the San Gabriel ranch at Alcalde, and, with her baby grand piano and maid, moved north to the Ghost Ranch in the Piedra Lumbra basin.
Southwestern Dude Ranches were located in the canyons and mountains of New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado but they were, for all intents and purposes, eastern establishments, associated with the old money in New York and Boston. A successful Dude Ranch had a patron on the eastern seaboard who referred his or her wealthy friends and associates to the business. In the case of Carol Stanley’s Ghost Ranch, the eastern patron was an old family friend from Massachusetts, Arthur Pack. Pack’s wife and daughters suffered from respiratory complaints and their doctors prescribed th dry clear air of the New Mexico high desert for them. Pack, who was involved in the foundation of the Sierra Club, moved from the East Coast to Ghost Ranch and became a co-owner in that enterprise with Carol Stanley. Pack’s close friend from his Harvard days, Robert Wood Johnson, an heir to Johnson and Johnson pharmaceutical fortune, built a cottage on Ghost Ranch and spent his summer months in that place. Robert Wood Johnson had lived in the same neighborhood with Charles Lindbergh and he had many other famous friends. His son-in-law was the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski. There is a story about some guests at the Ghost Ranch hiking to the Chimney Rock. One of the hikers, a man named Bennett noticed that a fellow dude, "looked just like Stokowski." Finally, Bennett said to the man: "I bet people tell you that you look like Leopold Stokowski. You must get that all the time." Stokowski admitted that people made that comment to him frequently. Robert Wood Johnson had a grand piano in his adobe cottage and, at night, Stokowski played for guests – people recall hearing the sound the piano coming from the open window of the mud-brick house. Indians from the local pueblo were imported to sing and dance at evening bonfires. When the large herd of wild horses living in the basin, over 200 animals led by a ferocious black stallion, began to entice the pack horses away from their corrals at the Ranch, Stanley hired sharpshooters to set up sniper stations on the buttes and gun down the horses as they came to the water holes. (For years afterwards, heaps of bleaching horse bones lay around the oozes and seeps of water in the valley and those skeletal remains are featured in some paintings later made by Georgia O’Keefe.)
Beginning around 1930, Georgia O’Keefe began to spend her summers in Santa Fe and Taos, away from her husband, Alfried Stieglitz. In 1931, she stayed in Abiquiu but didn’t venture north into the Piedra Lumbra basin of the Rio Chama. One afternoon, she traveled on the bad roads north of Abiquiu with a guide looking for the gate to the Ghost Ranch, a place about which she had heard when staying at Stanley’s dude ranch at San Gabriel. After three hours of searching, O’Keefe couldn’t find the gate to the property and returned to Abiquiu. A couple days later, she saw a pick-up truck at the general store in Abiquiu bearing the insignia GR. She followed the pick-up truck back through the red-rock canyon to the lllano of the basin and, in that way, arrived at the Ghost Ranch. She visited a number of times that summer, impressed by the stark vermillion cliffs overlooking the canyons and, in the following years, came so frequently that an adobe cottage was built for her use. Beginning in 1934, O’Keefe lived at the Ghost Ranch half of each year. (An exception was 1939, when O’Keefe spent the summer in Hawaii as a guest of the Dole Fruit Company.)
O’Keefe had an imperious, difficult personality. She was devoted to her art to the exclusion of most human concerns and could be enormously rude. She didn’t tolerate interruptions when she was working and offended many of the other guests, and regulars, at the Ghost Ranch. She wandered around the gullies and ravines at the ranch collecting bones, some of which she sent to her studios at Lake George, New York. In October 1940, O’Keefe bought the cottage and eight acres of adjacent land at Ghost Ranch where she had been spending most summers for the last six years. The house where O’Keefe lived in Abiquiu was owned by the Archdiocese in Santa Fe and had been the priest’s residence in that village. O’Keefe pestered the Archdiocese for years and, finally, was able to buy that place in 1945. Her husband, Alfred Stieglitz died in 1946 and, after settling his affairs, O’Keefe moved permanently to New Mexico – she spent six months annually in Abiquiu and six months on the Ghost Ranch.
During World War II and, in the years thereafter, dude ranches went out of style. Paying guests at the Ghost Ranch were few and far between. Carol Stanley had sold her share in the Ghost Ranch to Arthur Pack in 1936 and, shortly, afterward remarried – her second husband was a flim-flam man and defrauded her of what remained of her wealth; he persuaded her to invest in owning and training thoroughbreds for horse-racing, a thinly disguised scheme to part Stanley from her money. Impoverished Stanley left New Mexico with her husband, fleeing on horseback ahead of creditors. She ended up running a five and dime store in Alamosa, Colorado, living in a two-room apartment above the business. When she died, she was buried in the high country near Pagosa Springs at a ceremony attended only by cowboys.
In the mid-fifties, Arthur Pack donated the Ghost Ranch to the Presbyterian Church. O’Keefe was enraged – she demanded to know why Pack had not given her an opportunity to buy the premises. O’Keefe lived to be 98 years old. Although she was famous in some circles, others didn’t know who she was. In her old age, dressed in a black cape and shawl, the artist who had been born in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin was often mistaken for an elderly Indian woman or a Spanish-speaking Abuela. The children who lived in Abiquiu pueblo were afraid of her: "she looked like a devil or an apparition," one of them later said. But she was wealthy and a benefactor to the community – she paid for a new water system in the town, provided bats, gloves, and balls for the local children’s baseball team, and, when a fire devastated part of the Presbyterian-owned Ghost Ranch conference center, she donated $50,000 for the restoration of the building.
O’Keefe believed that if she painted the Pedernal summit enough times, it would belong to her. The image appears again and again in her work. When she died, her ashes were scattered atop the high, angular mesa of that mountain.
The entrance to Ghost Ranch, once almost impossible to find, is now marked with the familiar (trade-marked) emblem of the steer’s skull, bleached white, in an arrowhead-shaped cartouche. State Highway 84 is paved and runs straight across the flat plain, now and then, affording views of a lake impounded behind a dam on the Rio Chama – the lake is in lowest trough of the basin. As the water gathered behind the dam, archaeologists struggled against time to catalog and index the sites drowned under the lake – more than 194 places with archaeological significance were so catalogued. The lake lies like quicksilver in the low part of the basin, a tub of water surrounded on all sides by barren, treeless hills. A turning lane has been dedicated to the Ghost Ranch exit. The property is posted as jointly controlled by the Presbyterian Church and the BLM (Bureau of Land Managment).
Near Highway 84, on a windy knoll, there is an old cabin. The cabin is now windowless and doorless, open to the elements, and it seems battered, a stick-built shack posing against the glamorous backdrop of shadowy red canyons and looming escarpments clad in pinon trees. As I drove by, a SUV ahead of me, pulled to the side of the gravel road, and people emerged with their cameras to take pictures.
It’s recess at the Men’s Wellness Conference at the Ghost Ranch Conference Center of the Presbyterian Church. The men are casually dressed, wearing jeans and flannel western shirts, and they stand in tight little groups on the lawn of the conference center. The gleaming cliffs rise in steps above us. Across the valley, the buttes are still casting long shadows across the brown and golden plain.
The men begin to chant together. "Off with their heads!" they cry. "Off with their heads!" Then, they should "Hallelujah!" It’s one common cry raised to the crystalline blue skies overhead.
"Off with their heads!" they shout again. Then, saluting one another, the men file back into the low-slung brown building next to the dinosaur museum, the conference center where they are learning how to be better men.
I didn’t recognize the stick-built and ancient cabin near the entrance to Ghost Ranch when I was on the site. And I didn’t recognize the ramshackle structure when I thought about it in Santa Fe or Albuquerque or, at any time, when I was in New Mexico. Later, I looked at my map of Ghost Ranch and now understand that the old cabin on the windy knoll is a movie set – it’s the cabin featured in the movie City Slickers starring Jack Palance and Billy Crystal. In several ways, this is appropriate and fitting. City Slickers is about a man reclaiming his masculinity by spending part of his summer at a Dude Ranch. Of course, Ghost Ranch has been the model for all dude ranches since the mid-1930's. Second, the theme of City Slickers is that the alienated East Coast dude, played by Billy Crystal, comes to New Mexico to "follow his bliss" – a theme that has been central to this place since the railroads made Santa Fe a tourist destination around the turn of the 20th century.
Many movies have been shot at Ghost Ranch. The landscape is probably more famous on screen than in Georgia O’Keefe’s paintings.