Georgia O'Keeffe, the solitary seer who died in Santa Fe on Thursday at the age of 98, disdained group exhibits. But I think she would have welcomed the inclusion of her paintings in "Art in New Mexico, 1900-1945: Paths to Taos and Santa Fe," the show that opened yesterday at the National Museum of American Art. Its colors would have pleased her. She would have recognized its skies. And its pictures would have summoned the shades of many friends -- Paul Strand, Ansel Adams, Mabel Dodge, Tony Luhan -- a whole company of ghosts.
The New Mexico display is the finest exhibition arranged by the museum since Charles C. Eldredge became its director in 1982.
Its walls are buff adobe, its floors are handmade tile, its pictures cleanse the eye. Perhaps the nicest thing about it is its remarkable coherence: Given its bewildering variety of objects -- its antique folk art carvings, its photographs and paintings, blankets, pots and bronzes -- one might have expected a broken, scattered show.
The 73 artists represented are comparably diverse. Some were daring radicals, others arch-conservatives. Some are famous, some forgotten. How, the viewer wonders, can a single exhibition embrace the varied visions of Remington and Russell, those painters of the West; Robert Henri and John Sloan, those painters of the Ashcan School; and Stuart Davis, Edward Hopper, John Marin, Marsden Hartley, the Hopi Indian Fred Kabotie, the sculptor Gutzon Borglum (he who carved Mount Rushmore), the photographer Edward Curtis, and Georgia O'Keeffe?
The answer is New Mexico, its Pueblos and its people, its mountains and its myths.
French painting is unthinkable without Barbizon and Pont-Avon. Try imagining Gauguin without considering Tahiti, or Ce'zanne without Aix, or van Gogh without Arles. In America, the Hudson River Valley, the high peaks of the Rockies, the cool coast of New England -- and the highlands of New Mexico -- have had a power just as great.
A century ago, advanced Parisian painters, sick of the genteel, often spent their summers on the northern coast of France. They went seeking something fresh -- simple, pious peasants in quaint old-fashioned costumes, and the soft mists of the sea. Taos offered Indians, purple hills and timelessness. It gave its artist-immigrants, easterners the lot of them, a landscape more exotic than Brittany provided the Modernists of France.
The artists came in waves, first the academics, then the avant-gardists. Their responses were the same:
"The skies and land are so enormous and the detail so precise and exquisite," said Ansel Adams, "that wherever you are, you are isolated in a glowing world between the macro and the micro -- where everything is sidewise under you and over you, and the clocks stopped long ago."
"Big sun heat. Big storm. Big everything," John Marin wrote to Alfred Stieglitz. But the glory of the scenery oppressed Stuart Davis: "You always have to look at it," he said.
In 1898, two academic artists, Ernest Blumenschein and Bert Phillips -- both of them had studied at the Acade'mie Julian in Paris -- were driving through New Mexico when their wagon wheel broke. The nearest blacksmith, they were told, was in the town of Taos, some 20 miles away.
Eventually they got there. They gasped, they stared, they stayed.
They were followed by Oscar E. Berninghaus in 1899, E. Irving Couse in 1902, W. Herbert Dunton in 1912, Victor Higgins and Walter Ufer in 1914, Julius Rolshoven in 1916, and E. Martin Hennings in 1917. Taos seized them all.
The paintings they had made before arriving in New Mexico (a number are on view) were hopelessly genteel. "We were ennuied with the hackneyed subject matter of thousands of painters," wrote Blumenschein, "windmills in a Dutch landscape, Brittany peasants with sabots . . . lady in negligee reclining on a sumptuous divan; lady gazing in a mirror; lady powdering her nose; etc., etc."
Taos gave them a new palette of oranges and golds and shadows sharp as knives. It gave them a new verve. And it gave them a new subject: All of them began putting Pueblo Indians into their art.
Other artists of the West -- Borglum, Remington and Russell, the sculptor James Earle Fraser (who designed the Indian nickel) -- had tended to turn Indians into noble mourning warriors. But in pre-World War I New Mexico, the Indians were not myths. They were really there.
Blumenschein portrayed them riding in the hills; Walter Ufer showed them baking bread in ovens. They go about their business in many of these pictures, they dance their sacred dances and decorate their pots.
New Mexico provided another group of models, too, almost as exotic. These were the Mexican Americans, who bloodied their brown bodies in pious acts of penance, and painted wooden icons, and hearded flocks of goats in the rolling purple hills.
"If you ever go to New Mexico," said O'Keeffe, "it will itch you for the rest of your life." She first saw Santa Fe in 1917. "From then on, I was always trying to get back there," she told Calvin Tomkins, "and in 1929 I finally made it."
Most of the young modernists from the Alfred Stieglitz circle -- Hopper, Marin, Davis, Hartley, Adams, and the writer D.H. Lawrence, too -- chose to go to Taos because they were invited. The catalyst who brought them there was Mabel Dodge Luhan (1879-1962).
She was both rich and insistent. In New York, before she married Tony Luhan, a Taos Indian, she had earned a reputation as a patron of the arts. "She had known Stieglitz long before I did, and she always wanted to get him out there," said O'Keeffe. "He never came, which was just as well."
But his artists came in droves. The Modernists in general painted what they felt, not only what they saw. O'Keeffe's "Black Cross With Stars and Blue" is a hymn to desert piety. John Marin's "Dance of the Santo Domingo Indians" (1929), a picture without portraits, somehow seems to shake with the stuttering, hypnotic rhythms of the dance.
The Indians, too, were artists. One saw that in the patterns of their weavings and their ceremonies. So were the Hispanics. One saw that in the heartfelt passion of their rituals. The Modernists responded to the locals they encountered less as subjects than as peers.
Viewers may expect to like these Henris and these Hoppers, but the Blumenscheins and Bisttrams, Jonsons and Van Soelens, are comparably impressive. The works by Ufer on display are as strong as the Marins. The goat herders painted by W. Herbert Dunton and E. Martin Hennings, and Victor Higgins' nude, are pictures just as memorable as Harley's rolling hillscapes. Myths arise and then dissolve in this exhibition. Attitudes and styles change. But New Mexico itself is somehow always there.
"I have picked flowers where I found them -- have picked up sea shells and pieces of wood," O'Keeffe explained. "I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it." That wideness and that wonder sing throughout this show.
Eldredge, Julie Schimmel and William H. Truettner prepared the first-rate catalogue. Val Lewton is responsible for the handsome installation. Kudos to them all. A $133,000 grant from the H.fs,1 J. Lutcher Stark Foundation of Orange, Tex., helped pay for the show, which will travel to Cincinnati, Houston and Denver after closing here on June 15.