“I made several little drawings,” O’Keeffe wrote to Stieglitz in 1930, from Taos, New Mexico. “It was wonderful sitting there alone watching the light and shadow over the desert and mountains—and wondering what I could do about it.…It all interests me much more than people—they seem almost not to exist.”
O’Keeffe drew inspiration for her paintings from the natural world that enveloped her. Whether in Lake George, New York, where she spent time throughout her twenties and thirties, or in Abiquiu, New Mexico, where she’d later establish a studio and home, it was the flora and fauna, or the way that light reflected off of rocks, that mesmerized her.
“I wish you could see what I see out the window,” she wrote to her friend Arthur Dove in 1942. “The earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north—the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky behind a very long beautiful tree covered mesa to the west—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.”
O’Keeffe absorbed views like these, then isolated the components that struck her. It was her favorite lines and colors that she brought to her canvases: paintings filled with soft, saturated folds or vast, pared-down desert vistas. Even her abstract paintings grew from her observations of nature. As historian David W. Galenson has pointed out, they represent the “progressive simplification of the shapes of real objects.”
Through this process of close looking, O’Keeffe sought to communicate the essence of her surroundings: “It is only by selection, by elimination, by emphasis,” she said in 1922, “that we get at the real meaning of things.”