O'Keeffe actively sought out dramatic, even surreal-looking objects and landscapes while living part-time in the New Mexico desert, a residency she began in 1929. By juxtaposing them in unexpected ways, she created
compositions that are utterly realistic and at the same time surreal, uncanny or abstract.
O'Keeffe made this painting near her Ghost Ranch, New Mexico home, including in it a faithful rendering of the distinctive flat-topped mountain, called the Pedernal, that she saw every day from her patio. O'Keeffe felt a spiritual connection to this unusual landscape form and depicted it many times. Near the end of her life, she joked, "It's my private mountain. It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it." link
O'Keeffe often represented the Pedernal as a distant presence in the extreme lower register of her paintings, creating a compositional tension between the far-off mountain and nearby elements in the central portion of the canvas. She followed this formula in "Deer's Skull with Pedernal," depicting a skull with elegantly curving antlers in the main body of the work. This object appears in many of O'Keeffe's paintings, and is closely based on a specific example found among the artist's belongings when she died in 1986. O'Keeffe often collected animal bones during her frequent long walks in the New Mexico desert, and included them in many of her paintings of the landscape.
Though "Deer's Skull with Pedernal" appears at first to be entirely representational, a faithful depiction of recognizable elements depicted in a realistic way, the underlying surrealism of the painting emerges upon closer examination. The skull ostensibly hangs on a weathered pinon tree but, in an eerie touch, O'Keeffe painted blue sky showing through the eyeholes. She also manipulated her image of the pinon tree so that its form uncannily echoes that of other compositional elements. The small branch near its base seems to curve in sympathy with the shape of the Pedernal, and the twisting offshoots at its top echo the forms made by the antlers in front of them. Even the dramatic spatial arrangement of this composition, which collapses foreground and distance, provokes a sense of unreality.
O'Keeffe painted a star on the back of this canvas. Throughout her career, she used this personal code when she was pleased with the way a work had turned out. Renowned collector William H. Lane agreed; he acquired this painting for his extraordinary collection of American modernist paintings in 1953 and donated it to the MFA in 1990.
- Quotes and painting from Museum of Fine Arts, Boston