"Tonight I walked into the sunset," Georgia O'Keeffe once wrote a friend.

Last night, the National Gallery of Art's dinner guests walked out of the sunset and into "the Faraway" -- as O'Keeffe sometimes called her Ghost Ranch in New Mexico. But "the faraway" that the National Gallery put together in its East Building out of her paintings and photographs of her and her land took guests farther out than that -- to a place where emotions have colors and thoughts have forms.

Guests came in through a dark side entry past brilliantly colored photographs of New Mexico, then ascended the great stair to an exhibit that spread over two floors, culminating in O'Keeffe's great 25-foot-wide cloud pictures.

Some of the word pictures dinner guests painted of O'Keeffe were almost as vivid as her paintings.

Juan Hamilton, the artist's confidant for 13 years and curator with Jack Cowart of the National Gallery's O'Keeffe show, which opens to the public Sunday, said, "The photographs of her by {Alfred} Stieglitz were so terrific, the model became very well known in New York. But the person wanted privacy, and so she made an independent life style for herself. She didn't watch the rules. I remember she wanted to live in a high building, with a wonderful view, but it was an exclusively men's hotel. When the management protested, she announced she would stay in the lobby till they let her have a room. It didn't take long before she and Stieglitz moved in."

J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery, recalled meeting O'Keeffe for the first time. "I was summoned," he said. "I was 35, though I'd been director a year. She was 83. My knees were knocking because it was obvious that I was being looked over to be sure that I would take care of Stieglitz's master sets of photographs. No matter that we had legal possession; she would have taken them back if she hadn't been satisfied with me."

Rep. Sidney Yates (D-Ill.), praised by Brown for his support of the arts, said a photograph of himself with O'Keeffe hangs in his office. "We met when the National Gallery had the Stieglitz show. I was once a photography student myself."

Zane Barnes, chairman of Southwestern Bell, which sponsored the show, waved his hand at the gallery where tall calla lilies bloomed in dishes of polished black rocks, and said, "She would have approved because this space is filled in a beautiful way."

Norma Marin -- whose father-in-law, painter John Marin, was a close friend of O'Keeffe's -- remembered her husband's stories of backpacking with the artist.

Jane Alexander said she expects to play Georgia O'Keeffe "in a low-budget film we're making next April."

But not all the talk was about O'Keeffe.

Patsy and Ray Nasher of Dallas enjoyed walking around the great atrium and its balconies and visiting their 70 or so pieces of sculpture now on view there. "I think they've grown," she said. "I'm afraid they won't fit when I get them home." Attorney Leonard Garment, once Richard Nixon's arts czar and more recently a passionate defender of defeated Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork, said, "My heart's still with the arts, but my mind is busy with these frustrating problems."

Clement Conger was just back from a 75th-birthday party for himself in Chicago given by John and Neville Bryan. His Chicago friends, as a birthday present, gave the State Department's Diplomatic Reception Rooms (of which Conger is curator) a gift of $95,000 to pay for a New York Chippendale marble-top table, once in the Lindens in Kalorama.

After the poached pears Lake George (named after one of O'Keeffe's homes) were finished, Carter Brown rose to make a toast, not, as usual, to the lenders of the exhibition, but to the painter.

"She combined sensitive lyricism with flinty originality, rigor and deep sensuality," Brown said. "She was almost here with us physically {O'Keeffe died a year and a half ago at 98}, but she is here in her work."

And with that he offered a toast to Georgia O'Keeffe, and as the whole crowd stood to raise their champagne glasses, it was as if the artist's faraway sunset had enveloped the room.