The Faraway, Nearby
Olivia Nathan on finding comfort in Georgia O'Keeffe's home.
Masked at the Met, a painting greets me upon stepping into a new gallery space, one devoted to modern American art of the 20th century. The painting by Georgia O’Keeffe depicts a bare mountain range, its peaks rising into points, the desert floor spreading into the foreground. In the center of the canvas floats an enormous deer skull with antlers reaching higher and wider than the mountains behind it. The sharp tips of its antlers interrupt the pastel sky and seem to be steadily growing. The mountains and the skeleton support each other, though their placement is illogical–surely the skull rests small and hollow deep in the mountain range, stripped white by wind, sand, desert scrub-brush.
I have not been home to California in a year thanks to disease and distance, so O’Keeffe’s desert fills me with nostalgia and with the arid, hushed blues of the West which my beloved Manhattan knows nothing of. Until I was a tanned teenager, I never appreciated a desert floor, so when I stand in front of an O’Keeffe, guilt stirs. I’ve turned twenty-five faraway and am learning that adulthood is a mixing of nostalgia and guilt. The colors of the canvas are pinks, blues, purples, beiges blended so smooth, my vision appears crystal clear, as if the air in the Met sweeps cool and dry like the desert. But the best part is its title, From the Faraway, Nearby. I read it three times before I can walk away. It alludes to O’Keeffe’s skewed perspective–bringing the smaller, dead thing close. The skull reminds me, in its volume and viewpoint, of Hans Holbein’s in The Ambassadors. Though O’Keeffe’s doesn’t seem a memento mori. Instead, it appears vital and silent, like a memory, like a home.
Olivia Nathan is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Sarah Lawrence College where she writes about femininity, Sergio Leone, and her life so far.
Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was an American modernist painter best known for her depictions of colorful flowers and New Mexico landscapes. She is recognized as the “mother of American modernism.”