Art and the Desert (not dessert)

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I have returned from my travels…and by travels I mean lying by a pool, in the desert, sipping margharitas.

This was my second visit to Sedona, Arizona and (beyond the vortexes) there is something rejuvenating about those red rocks. They always get me thinking and seeing like an artist again. The way that the red rock meets the blue sky at those impossibly flat plateaus, has been the subject of many a painting and continues to draw artists out of the city and into the desert.

As a teenager, Georgia O’Keefe was one of the first artists whose work made an impact on me. Her use of colour and line seemed so accessible to the young eye, especially one surrounded by the hyper-realism that could be found in every British home and museum. Her use of skulls as subject matter, was a thrill to my teenage self.

As an artist myself, I am now compelled by her life more than her work. The lone woman living in the desert, turning her back on the city as subject, and finding something of value in the rural and deserted; it seems like a dream (except for the lone part, I wouldn’t be without my hubby). Photographs show her skin worn and tough and her eyes keen.

Like O’Keefe, the artist Agnes Martin gained reputation in New York City, but left for the desert life of New Mexico. When I first saw her work, I found the drawings compelling in their simplicity and repetition but cold within the white cube of the gallery. However; when I think of (some of) them being made in the desert , those tiny lines meticulously drawn across a surface, make sense for me. They evoke a mapping of the sediments, horizons, roads and pathways, and a simplicity of vision and lifestyle. Agnes Martin denied any relationship between her work and the desert landscape, which makes me wonder about how much control we have over the content of our work and how the viewer responds to it. Is there a way to take the “it is like…” out of the viewers vocabulary? Should anyone really want to?

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Of course there have also been male artists working in the desert (Donald Judd and Robert Smithson being the first to come to mind) but these two women, O’Keefe and Martin, embody something for me. They were somehow able to have their cake and eat it too (I guess dessert is a part of this post). They gained reputation and respect as artists in the city, and yet were able to live the life of solitude in rural America. Their desire to make, was bigger than their desire for fame, and yet fame followed them anyway. Perhaps they just knew when to leave; when being unavailable in body, would make their work more desirable…or perhaps the clarity that came from living in the desert, found its way into their work, and this is what is so compelling to view in the chaos of the city and its galleries.

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