Fifth Avenue and The High Road to Taos


Mabel Dodge, Georgia O'Keeffe and New York City 

A self-guided walk from Walking Off the Big Apple


View Larger Map


Introduction

Years ago, in the plaza of Taos, New Mexico, my mother and I struck up a conversation with a guy who ran a sandwich stand. He told us he was a New Yorker, a former business executive who decided on a whim one day to move out west. While stuck in traffic for hours on the Long Island Expressway, he decided to go home, collect the wife and children, and leave New York for good. He said he never regretted the decision, and he was happy selling sandwiches on the Taos plaza.

Mabel Dodge (1879-1962), the wealthy heiress at 23 Fifth Avenue, and Georgia O'Keeffe (1887-1986), the famous artist whose first exhibit was held at 291 Fifth Avenue, could have lived out the rest of their lives in New York. In 1917 Dodge married painter Maurice Sterne and had her eye on a new apartment at 23 Washington Square North. In April of 1917 Alfred Stieglitz exhibited a series of O'Keeffe's watercolors at his 291 gallery, and soon the two would be living together. They married in 1924.

After a series of nervous ailments, Dodge decided her future was in the west. In December 1917 she moved to Taos, New Mexico with her husband and their friend, Elsie Clews Parsons. Twelve years later, in the summer of 1929, O'Keeffe traveled to New Mexico with her friend, Beck Strand. The two stayed at Mabel's ranch. Mabel had divorced Sterne and married Tony Luhan, a Native American. For O'Keeffe, the visit presented a new palette, not just for her art but for her life. Upon returning to New York her art career blossomed (so to speak), but in 1932 and 1933 she also suffered from bouts of psychoneurosis. In 1934, still recuperating, she returned to New Mexico and found her ranch.

New York can be beautiful, but not in the way that New Mexico can be beautiful. I think New Mexico will continue to hypnotize those of us who live back east. When I get sick of the city, I sit on my terrace and look west. I imagine the Sangre de Christo Mountains in the setting red-orange sun and cow's skulls with white calico roses descending over the azure sky. I think then, "How much longer can I take this? What Ghost Ranch waits for me?"

(top) Mabel Dodge Luhan. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1934, and (bottom) Georgia O'Keeffe. Photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1950.

II. Ladies of the Canyon

"Trina wears her wampum beads
She fillls her drawing book with line
Sewing lace on widows' weeds
And filigree on leaf and vine"
-Joni Mitchell, "Ladies of the Canyon"



Mabel
Mabel Dodge, for four years during the 1910s, occupied an elegant apartment at 23 Fifth Avenue on the corner of 9th Street, a space she enveloped in white. She painted the woodwork white, papered the walls white, and she covered the windows and floors with white curtains and white rugs. She served white wine at lunch, and she often wore white dresses. She created a place where her identity could take shape, and she filled the space with other people who had already defined themselves - socialists, painters, Bolsheviks, newspaper columnists, poets and anarchists, who could give her a new sense of self against all that white.

After repainting her apartment, she suffered an apparent nervous collapse, if not a clinical breakdown. She heard ghosts in the telephone receiver, and she saw the word "EVIL" appear to her in the form of a giant blue-grey smile. She could be original - the Paterson Strike Pageant at Madison Square Garden was her idea, or she could be petty and petulant, strung out on a guy like John Reed. She wouldn't be happy until the 1920s, when she had moved to New Mexico and where all the adobe houses were painted white.

Georgia
"One can't paint New York as it is, but rather as it is felt."
" Now and then when I get an idea for a picture, I think, how ordinary. Why paint that old rock? Why not go for a walk instead? But then I realize that to someone else it may not seem so ordinary."

In 1925, Georgia O'Keeffe and her husband Alfred Stieglitz moved into the Shelton Hotel at Lexington and 49th Street (now the New York Marriott East Side) and lived there for 12 years. Their apartment afforded excellent views of Midtown and a window onto the dazzling skyscraper race of the 1920s. O'Keefe had already started painting her signature flowers, but she started sketching, drawing, and painting the buildings out her window, ones with interesting shapes. She made approximately 40 works of buildings in the New York sky, including City Night, 1926, Shelton Hotel, N.Y. No.1, 1926, Shelton with Sunspots, 1926, Radiator Building-Night, New York, 1927, and New York Night, 1928-1929.

By 1929 O'Keeffe grew disillusioned with her marriage and with New York. She welcomed the invitation to spend the summer at Mabel Dodge Luhan's home in Taos.

By the early 1910s, the proliferation of tall New York buildings along Fifth Avenue and other thoroughfares cast the streets in darkness, and it grew common to refer to these places as "canyons." By 1920, during the early days of the building boom, new landowners tore down Mabel Dodge's house at 23 Fifth Avenue and the 291 Fifth Avenue building that housed Stieglitz's gallery and replaced them with larger buildings in the modern style.

Image: Looking north on Fifth Avenue.

III. Gertrude Stein, The Big Bear Buddha of Bryant Park



"In a large studio in Paris, hung with paintings by Renoir, Matisse and Picasso, Gertrude Stein is doing with words what Picasso is doing with paint. She is impelling language to induce new states of consciousness, and in doing so language becomes with her a creative art rather than a mirror of history."

- from SPECULATIONS, OR POST-IMPRESSIONS IN PROSE by Mabel Dodge (Arts and Decoration, March, 1913). Dodge's essay on the modernist, experimental writing of Gertrude Stein helped popularize the author in the United States. The essay was published and distributed at the 1913 Armory Show, the landmark blockbuster exhibition that introduced European modernism to New York.

Gertrude Stein and Mabel Dodge had frequent misunderstandings and did not always get along. At one point Dodge asked Gertrude's brother, Leo, why Gertrude seemed so distant, and according to Dodge, "he laughed and said because there was a doubt in her mind about who was the bear and who was leading the bear!" (Mabel Dodge Luhan, Movers and Shakers. Albuquerque, New Mexico: University of New Mexico Press, 1936.)

Image: Sculpture of Gertrude Stein, Bryant Park. On the right, behind Stein's left shoulder, is the base of the Radiator Building, the subject of one of Georgia O'Keeffe's paintings. The sculpture is a casting based on a 1923 model made in Paris by Jo Davidson (1883-1952).

Image by Walking Off the Big Apple, New York, New York. January 17, 2008. From this angle, Gertrude looks gigantic, but actually it's a modest life-size statue.