Wednesday, January 06, 2010

No One Told Me It Was Like This!

Mars and I first came to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1992 to celebrate our twenty-fifth of marriage. We have returned just about every year since.

That spring the two of us had seen a retrospective of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We were blown away by the non-representative earth toned shapes, the idealized azure backgrounds, and the fictitiously flushed flora and firmament with which she conveyed her otherworldly impressions of the desert southwest.

It seemed to exemplify the dictionary definition of abstract art: "art that does not attempt to represent external, recognizable reality but seeks to achieve its effect using shapes, forms, colors, and textures."

Shortly thereafter we were trying to decide on a special spot in which to celebrate our upcoming silver anniversary. Simultaneously we both said "New Mexico" -- so we could see what gave O'Keeffe her wildly unrealistic ideas.

Months later, outside the plane window as we approached Albuquerque Airport, we saw not the gremlin from "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" but something equally implausible -- a near-perfect replica of O'Keeffe's "The Sky Above the Clouds."

"Nothing is less real than realism...Details are confusing. It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis, that we get at the real meaning of things."

We learned two things very quickly when we got there (in addition to the fact that hydration is doubly important at high altitudes yet, unfairly, alcohol is twice as potent):

1) The non-pictorial forms and figures are really there -- really! --in the configuration of the high desert land, and the architecture of the adobe buildings. It’s just a matter of how you look at them.

2) The colors are equally as true. While watching sunrise at the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge we saw the sky slowly fill with the same impossible combination of hues we had seen in O'Keeffe and, the day before, on other canvases at the Taos Arts Festival

"Objective painting is not good painting unless it is good in the abstract sense. A hill or tree cannot make a good painting just because it is a hill or tree. It is lines and colors put together so that they may say something."

We began taking photos as soon as our feet hit the ground. The 1990's being the pre-digital age, Mars and I were more abstemious in our photo snapping -- and took much more care in choosing our subject matter and setting up the shot. Nowadays, with our point-shoot-browse-delete cameras, no film developing costs to care about, and home computer photo editing we each can easily blow off a couple of hundred images in a week. Nonetheless, even with a smaller set to choose from, we noticed several snapshots that seemed to meet O'Keeffe's criteria for "abstract objectivity" -- or at least our interpretation thereof.

Over time it became easier to visualize these "lines and colors" in the midst of the real thing -- and eventually, for me anyway, more difficult not to.

Maybe it was the newness of a place so geographically and architecturally opposite from what was familiar that caused us to see things in a new way. Perhaps it was a result of the thinness of the high-altitude air and the resultant shortage of oxygen to our brains. Or the aforementioned increased potency of wine and beer at these greater heights.

Or it just could be that "The City Different" (as Santa Fe is known) and northern New Mexico in general is exactly what it says it is -- not the same as another; unlike in nature, form, and quality; distinct; separate.

It is easier to see differently when what there is to see is so different.

"Well! Well! Well!... This is wonderful. No one told me it was like this!"

(All quotations by Georgia O'Keeffe)

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