From pelvises, vertebrae, and mandibles to ram’s skulls, mule skulls, and even human skulls, painter Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) was an avid collector of bones. And they often showed up as elements in her paintings. Three of the bones from her personal collection are included in the exhibition The Natural World at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (217 Johnson St., 505-946-1000, okeeffemuseum.org), along with rocks, shells, and feathers that she kept on display in her New Mexico homes in Abiquiú and at Ghost Ranch. The exhibit explores the ways in which O’Keeffe treated organic materials as subjects for paintings, playing with scale, color, and abstraction. The show is a glimpse into O’Keeffe’s passion for natural subjects and is augmented by archival photographs of the artist working with her collections.
“The pairing of these objects — shells, bones, and stones — together with the works of art they inspired, helps us see as O’Keeffe did: looking closely at the wonder of the natural world,” says the museum’s curator of fine art, Ariel Plotek.
O’Keeffe didn’t just find the bones she painted here in the Southwest, heading out to the areas around her homes to collect them. Many of them were gifted to her, and some may have been purchased, which led to some difficulty in figuring out exactly what animal bones are in the museum’s collection.
For the museum staff, identifying them was a speculative venture, even when it came to how O’Keeffe herself identified them in the titles of her paintings. The reason is that the museum had no comparative collections to study, and no one on their staff works with animal bones as a profession. Museum Fellow Victoria Monagle, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Mexico, helped to change that.
An expert on animal bones weighs in
“From what I understand, the museum reached out to the UNM anthropology department, and Dr. Emily Jones referred my name,” says Monagle, a zooarchaeologist researching prehistoric dogs in the Pueblo Southwest. “She thought I was a good fit because, one, I study animal bones and, two, I used to be a park ranger and my emphasis on research has been with public outreach.” Three things made her study of the O’Keeffe bones problematic. One, they’re fragile, and the museum couldn’t risk letting them out of the building. Two, because they belonged to O’Keeffe, they’re a valuable part of the collection. And three, they were being prepared to go on display. That meant that Monagle had to bring comparative collections to the museum in a reversal of her normal operating procedure.
“It was puzzling for me, as someone who’s early in my career, to have this opportunity but not be able to use the resources that I’m expected to use in my field,” she says. “I decided to photo-document the collection first so I would know which bones I should bring up to the museum. I took entire bison and cow skeletons up to the museum. It was really difficult because I only had one of each species. With a comparative collection, you usually want different ages, different sizes, and different sexes. With the cattle and bison bones, I couldn’t say for sure ‘this sacrum is from a cow,’ because cow and bison bones look so similar. I just had to be general and say this bone is from a Bos species, cow or bison.”
Monagle says that she worried how others in her field would react to the fact that she used photographs of the collection instead of handling the actual specimens. Normally, she would bring the bones home or to UNM, where she has access to comparative collections. “When CoViD-19 happened, everybody was working from home, and nobody could use comparative collections,” she says. “I was hearing from other people that it was becoming more common to do identifications through photographs.”
A comparative study of animal bones is an exacting process. You might be able to puzzle out which genus an animal belongs to, but identifying species within that genus is much more difficult. “A lot of times, when you’re looking at a skull, the first thing you look for is if it belongs to a family with several species that have similar landmarks on the skull,” Monagle says. “If it looks like it could be from a lot of different animals, you go by the size range. You measure it from one landmark to another or one part of the skull to the other. Then you can say, ‘It has to be one of these 10 animals.’ Then, out of these 10 animals, maybe only five are in the region.”
Complicating the identification of bones in the O’Keeffe collection is the fact that not all of them were from animals native to New Mexico. “We had no idea where these bones came from. We had no idea if some of her friends brought them from another region, state, or country, or if she bought them. We don’t know the history of the bones.”
Granted, there is photo and film documentation showing O’Keeffe partaking in collecting ventures. So it is likely that she found many of them locally, in the vicinity of her homes. “There are these fantastic photographs by Ansel Adams of O’Keeffe with the bones she found in the desert, and sometimes carcasses with bits of the flesh still attached,” Plotek says. “There’s film imagery of this. Henwar Rodakiewicz made a film called Land of Enchantment: Southwest U.S.A. that also features some scenes of O’Keeffe going out and finding bones in her backyard, so to speak.”
But clearly, not all of the bones came from the Southwest. A case in point is a vertebra that appeared to belong to a species of whale. “Where am I going to get whale bones to compare this vertebra to all the many species in the entire world of whales?” Monagle says. She considered O’Keeffe’s 1939 trip to Hawaii, where the artist was working on a commission from the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (now Dole Food Company) and surmised that the whale bone probably came from there. “I just started emailing a bunch of people and seeing who they thought I could contact. I found a researcher who’s actually making a resource reference guide about whale bones. I contacted her. I sent her all of these photos. She was able to narrow it down to a family of whales called Globicephala. She said she thinks it belongs to either a pilot whale or a pygmy whale. She didn’t have access to those specimens at the time, and when you’re studying bones, it’s sometimes better to go with the broader term. Because of her, I was able to put a description on that bone.”
Monagle’s efforts helped, not only with identifying the bones in the O’Keeffe collection but with clarifying animals O’Keeffe misidentified in her painting titles. “We guessed certain bones to be from a given animal and even had those on our labels before,” Plotek says. “Victoria’s been able to correct us.”
“She mixed up goats in all of her paintings,” Monagle says. “It was really confusing for me when I started this project. In this one painting, it says ‘ram’s skull,’ but I knew it wasn’t a ram.” Monagle says that when she was a park ranger, it was easy to confuse sheep and goats, even when they’re alive, covered with hair and skin and moving around. Identifying which is which from the bones is even harder. “Sheep and goat bones look so similar. There are people who specialize in telling these bones apart. That’s not me, and that’s not a lot of people. So it’s super-understandable that Georgia O’Keeffe would mix these up. But the curators were extremely surprised when I’d say this skull belonged to a sheep. They’d say, ‘Georgia O’Keeffe called it a goat.’ Yeah, I know, but it’s definitely a sheep. I was really nervous to bring it up but they were really excited by it.”
An artist and a collector
O’Keeffe saw bones as more than a mere subject for painting. She collected them and arranged them in her home as though she were creating her own version of a cabinet of curiosity, or a collection of objects like something one would see in a natural history museum. There were bones from pronghorn, wolverines, coyotes, fish, mink, snakes, elk, and bald eagles, to name a few. They hung on the walls and were arranged on the windowsills and bookshelves inside her homes. She set them up outside, too, and hung them from her portals.
She used a variety of means of incorporating bone imagery into her paintings. Some were still-lifes, others were landscapes with a still-life component. Several of them appear to be abstractions, but that had to do with the perspective from which she painted.
“I think, in particular, of the way she uses the pelvis bone,” Plotek says. “It becomes a device she uses to frame her compositions. One of the centerpieces of her New Mexico paintings is a pelvis painting where the pelvis is sort of framing this oval of blue sky. It would be impossible for anyone to know what the motif was without looking at the label. But it becomes a recurring motif for her.”
Take, for example, Pelvis Series, Red with Yellow (1945). It looks like an abstraction: a yellow ovoid form surrounded by a nebulous, organic shape rendered in shades of pale white and ochre. Once it registers that the pale-and-ochre shape is a pelvic bone, you no longer view the painting as an abstraction but as a painting of a representational form.
“That painting, where O’Keeffe abstracts the bone, is the subject of a very famous photograph by Tony Vaccaro,” Plotek says. “It’s become a very iconic image of O’Keeffe.”
O’Keeffe began collecting bones in New Mexico as early as 1929 when she made her first trip here as a guest of Taos arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. The bones she collected were shipped back to New York, and it’s likely that her earliest compositions with bones were made back in the East Coast metropolis. Plotek holds that her painting Horse’s Skull with White Rose (1931), which is on long-term loan to the museum, was painted in her New York studio with a skull she collected in New Mexico.
“After that little bit of exposure to New Mexico, these motifs become fascinations or preoccupations even when she’s back in New York. Another thing she collected: silk flowers. To O’Keeffe, they were a sort of novelty. She had been painting flowers for many years, particularly at Lake George [New York], but the silk flower becomes a sort of substitute for her when she finds herself in this environment where the flowers she’s used to paint aren’t plentiful. In fact, it’s very likely that the painting of the horse skull and flower is really a painting of a skull with a silk flower.”
The Natural World opened just before the museum closed in March. When it reopens to the public on Friday, Sept. 25, visitors can expect to see O’Keeffe’s paintings paired with the bones that served as her subjects. “So you can see, for example, a painting of a thigh bone and then the thigh bone itself in the case in front of it,” Plotek says. “It’s a really nice illustration of the one-to-one relationship between the painting and the subject.” ◀