“When I got to New Mexico, that was mine. As soon as I saw it, that was my country.” So said Georgia O’Keeffe, the American modernist artist. She may be best known for painting flowers but a new exhibition at Tate Modern will illustrate just how important her adopted home was; six rooms are dedicated to paintings of New Mexico.
For Americans, the artist is so indelibly associated with the area around Santa Fe that it is known as “O’Keeffe Country”. The painter spent summers there from 1929, swapping New York for New Mexico permanently following the death of her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, in 1949.
This patch of America’s south-west has long attracted creative types, from DH Lawrence and Aldous Huxley to Bruce Nauman and Cormac McCarthy. Santa Fe is able to make the astonishing boast of being America’s third-largest art market — despite a population of only 70,000. The town is stuffed with big museums and small galleries, and in July and August hosts international folk art and (indigenous) Indian art markets.
“It’s something that’s in the air, it’s different. The sky is different; the wind is different,” wrote O’Keeffe of New Mexico. Visiting the area, you see what she meant. At 7,000ft, the dry climate means the air crackles and the light is crystal-sharp. I gape each morning, surprised anew at just how dark, how deep a blue a sky can be. Against this backdrop, the orange-brown curved Pueblo-style buildings — traditional Native American architecture — seem to pop up like an optical illusion.
The city legislated for new-builds to follow this historic style, meaning Santa Fe retains a charmingly old-fashioned air. Small and walkable, the state capital is arranged around a historic plaza that features America’s oldest public building, the Palace of the Governors, dating from 1610.
But tourism is big here, and Santa Fe has no shortage of swish hotels. I stayed at the Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi. A stone’s throw from the historic plaza, this characterful hotel — with its curved adobe walls and wood-beamed ceilings — elegantly showcases the arts and crafts of Ancestral Puebloans.
Those making an O’Keeffe pilgrimage to Santa Fe have plenty to crack on with. The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum houses an impressive selection of her works and offers tours of her home in the village of Abiquiú, 50 miles north. Make time to visit the nearby White Place. This astonishing valley of natural spires of white rock was a favourite place of O’Keeffe’s to hike and paint.
O’Keeffe-themed tours of the area run from the nearby Ghost Ranch. The brightly coloured landscapes she painted — smoky red hills, yellow and peach layer-cakes of rock, distant blue mountains — might appear improbable in a gallery in grey London. But when the very views she painted veer up in front of you, it becomes obvious how she found in New Mexico a natural palette to fire her creativity.
Santa Fe’s artsy vibe has continued into the 21st century. SITE Santa Fe is a contemporary gallery with an international reputation, while Meow Wolf is an immersive multi-media installation space and arts venue. Created by a collective of young artists, it was funded by local resident, Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, and created a real buzz when it opened this year.
Then there’s Canyon Road, which has more than 100 small galleries strung along its half-mile. A stroll down it is essential, but it also puts the town’s artistic credentials in question: there’s a lot of tasteless tat. A hippie enclave in a Southern state, Santa Fe can veer towards wind chimes and crystals, and the art often follows suit.
Local mystic types claim that Santa Fe is so spiritual it has a special vibration but even sceptics claim it’s a place of weird coincidences and connections. I am repeatedly asked by locals: have I had my Santa Fe moment? I hear countless stories, from curators to café-owners, about moving there on a mad whim or falling hard for the city’s strange serendipity.
Still, if the dreamcatchers don’t do it for you, I recommend making like O’Keeffe — who continued to tramp across the countryside into her eighties — and taking a hike.
The Dale Ball trails lead out of Santa Fe into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Ascending a summit, I emerge into the sparkling air, the cobalt-blue sky, to a wide view over pine-dappled slopes and plains. No wonder, I think while catching my breath, O’Keeffe and generations of artists have been inspired here. Blame the altitude and the crackle of the mountain air but I have my Santa Fe moment: I am definitely picking up those good vibrations.
Georgia O’Keeffe is at Tate Modern from Wednesday to October 30 (tate.org.uk).
The writer flew with British Airways (0344 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow to Santa Fe via Dallas.
The Rosewood Inn of the Anasazi (rosewoodhotels.com). Doubles $295.
Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (okeeffemuseum.org). Ghost Ranch, Abiquiú (ghostranch.org). SITE Santa Fe (sitesantafe.org). santafe.org; newmexico.org