ANALYZING GEORGIA O’KEEFFE reminiscences by Paul Henrickson ©2001

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The process of analysis is one of my more constant activities. I suppose this may partly be true because of my training as an artist, art historian and psychologist. However, I think that a dead-end desire to survive may also have a great deal to do with it. While it may be convenient for any group of people who call themselves a society, the American, the British, the Maltese societies to maintain an acceptable image, one that everyone might point to and say, with pride or discrete disdain, “that is typically…so and so” when the analysis comes down to the nitty and the gritty there is probably more involved than our vocabularies might normally be able to describe. In terms of general public awareness Georgia O’Keeffe is, and probably will be for some time, the most famous woman artist in the United States of America. While we can make that statement in all confidence that it will not be gainsaid it, having been said, should not be interpreted to mean that she is the best woman artist in America. I have no other to propose as an alternative however. The only time that I was confronted by Georgia O’Keeffe was in the St. Francis Auditorium, a performance and lecture hall attached to the Museum of Fine Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She was with Louise Trigg McKinney who, at that time, I believe, was still the Chairman of the New Mexico State Arts Council who was exchanging remarks with someone else. I waited, not wanting to intrude myself unnecessarily, until Louise finished, but in the meantime Miss. O’Keeffe, who was then in her late 80s suddenly made me aware that I was being undressed. It was this episode that alone was not very significant except, perhaps, in terms later to be developed when one Juan Hamilton , a ceramist, who had offered his assistance to O’Keeffe as a handy-man became involved in area gossip that he was the lover of Georgia O’Keeffe. At the time this gossip hatched Georgia was in her nineties and Hamilton in his early thirties. I was privately amused by this, at least on the surface, but beneath it all wondered how such a relationship might be humanly expressed. I understand that woman kind might have organically viable responses for a longer period of time than do men at least in so far as my experience justified it that was my opinion and since I had met Georgia’s sister, Claudia, on the occasion of the art exhibit of their sister, yet another sister, Ida, at the Jean Seth Gallery on Canyon Road and thoroughly enjoyed our verbal multi-level exchange as

Claudia stood there without her shoes among the scores of viewers I had additional insight into how Georgia probably responded to the presence of an over six foot, lean, dark-haired ambitious young man living on the place at Abiquiu some miles north of Santa Fe. After her death I was given an advance reading copy of a book entitled “Miss O’Keeffe by an artist named Christine Taylor Patten who had cared for Georgia in her last days both at Abiquiu and at the last house she lived in Santa Fe, one not far from my own. Juan Hamilton had taken over the management of Georgia’s affairs after she no longer could see very well and had made arrangements for the purchase of this very large home, which I had known through its previous owners, and which had been equipped with the studios associated with an art school. Very handy for a ceramist who felt he needed foundry facilities The descriptions of both Hamilton and of O’Keeffe’s responses to Hamilton in “Miss O’Keefe were totally consistent with my experiences and ever so graciously described, without actually doing so directly, an example of how silence becomes golden. Or, to employ yet another observation, how expressive is what is left unsaid. I suppose an estate worth between $90,000,000 and $120,000,000 might be an impediment to an open, trusting and totally rewarding relationship and I have no doubt that both Georgia and Claudia were aware of the difficulties involved in that sort of relationship even if the age differences between the involved pair didn’t amount to the six decades as this relationship did. Even in relationships where the age difference is not that great but the source of support comes from the distaff side the psychological stress on the male is apparent and very much in conflict with the universal desire for enrichment. Perhaps O’Keeffe was aware of the spiritual conflict from evidence of her dream, reported by Patten, where a big blue pig comes into her bedroom, climbs into bed with her and is very noisy and very greedy. The brief opportunity for me to observe Hamilton’s behavior was during the very initial period of jury selection when Hamilton in cooperation with one of Santa Fe’s more prominent art gallery owners, Gerald Peters, and an array of other complainants, none of whom, to my knowledge, had anything close to spotless career had instigated a suit for art fraud against one Herta Wittgenstein, now exiled in Austria. At this time Hamilton moved the way I have seen so many organizers, conductors, theatrical managers and majordomo’s move when they feel they must be certain everything goes off as planned. But why, I wondered then, should Hamilton be so concerned when this legal matter, at least in theory, had been placed in the hands of the District Attorney’s office? The matter of the O’Keeffe estate had already been settled and Hamilton was the sole heir, Gerald Peters got exclusive right to handle all of O’Keeffe’s artistic production, even the State of New Mexico had much to gain, (I imagine, to the post mortem chagrin of O’Keeffe herself who had felt the State’s Museum officials had been anything but proper in their behavior toward her), been rewarded through the efforts of the then governor Jerry Apodaca by the offering of two of her paintings in payment for some

alleged tax obligation. Everything except some small 8-10” sculptures of no particular artistic significance whatsoever which Wittgenstein claimed O’Keeffe had given her and from which she, Wittgenstein, was now producing replicas. To my knowledge Wittgenstein never said that the replicas were original so I wondered where the charge of fraud entered in. I never did find out, but Wittgenstein lost her case and was imprisoned. In the meantime Hamilton had sold out and moved himself and his family (a wife and two children) to Hawaii, yes, he was married and even when earlier, according to the reports by Patten, there had been talk of his divorcing his wife and marrying Georgia just in order to make the inheritance to avoid attachments or go uncontested. Apparently, there had been some sort of suspicion that the, yet another, sister in Florida might contest the will. There was a time when Santa Fe was a buzz with the rumor that O’Keeffe and Hamilton had married. There seems to be something of the flexible religiosity of characters out of Erskine Caldwell’s “God’s Little Acre” about that maneuver especially if one might substitute the state for God.

Georgia O’Keeffe being entertained by Clara, the wife of the then Governor of New Mexico Jerry Apodaca. During the installation of Georgia’s small exhibition at “The Governor’s Gallery” in the waiting room outside the Governor’s Office. As the Chinese say, a picture is worth a thousand words. This picture must have been taken some twenty years before Georgia died and there seems to be vigor left in those legs and the attitude and posture speak eloquently of a social reserve and pride seldom seen in the late twentieth century American woman. Even if in the next twenty years Georgia had lost weight, as one might expect between the ages of 75 and 95, it hardly justifies the public comment attributed to Hamilton by Patten:”who would want to jump a pile of bones like that?” in describing one’s benefactor. Sincere appreciation for the help and good breeding would have prevented voicing a statement like that and guilt together with vain masculine bravura would have forced it out. There was a directness and a no nonsense approach to social and aesthetic values in Georgia O'Keeffe that may have been both innate and certainly encouraged by her

photographer husband Alfred Steiglitz who had long since died before she came to New Mexico.

Note written to Herta Wittgenstein thanking her for some corn she had sent and commenting on critical remarks made by the writer Paul Henrickson The wording of this note is as spare and as direct as O’Keeffe’s paintings.

Photograph by Alfred Stieglitz of Georgia O’Keeffe, 1921 Where Hamilton saw only “a bundle of bones” Stieglitz memorialized structure.