GEORGIA O'KEEFFE: A PERSONAL TESTIMONY
Decades ago, I worked for the Governor of New Mexico. We had just moved into our offices on the fourth floor of the state capitol building.
Alan P., the governor´s cultural aide, and I looked around at the blank walls in the huge reception area. He said it was “the perfect place to start a Governor´s Gallery” to promote state artists.
“Who should we get first?”
“Georgia O´Keeffe, “ I modestly suggested.
We floated the idea for a week. Not one response was favorable. Rumors had persisted for years that she was a difficult person -- impossible to work with, terrible: a sort of terrestrial witch. I have an idea where those rumors started, but won´t discuss it here.
I shrugged: who the hell really knows? “I never met her. Did you?”
Anyway, how do you contact Georgia O´Keeffe? She was not only a world-famous artist, she was also a locally-famous inaccessible recluse.
A light turned on. “The Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival every year has posters featuring Georgia O'Keeffe paintings,” I said. “They must have her permission. Let´s talk to them, and go from there.”
One thing led to another. One morning in walked Juan Hamilton, George O´Keeffe´s aide and confident. He looked around, asked us a few pointed questions; he quickly saw we were damn serious.
A few days later the pair arrived unaccompanied and with only a few minutes´ prior notice. I remember we had to shut the front doors; word was spreading. Outside in the hall, a crowd was gathering.
What struck me instantly about Georgia O'Keeffe was her eyes. They had a steely glint I never saw before or since. They said without saying a word: “Don´t mess with me, buster!” Let me tell you: nobody did.
Alan and I showed them the reception area. “You´re going to have to change the paint on the walls,” she matter-of-factly told us. “That white won´t do. Neither will the lights.” She went on and on; she knew exactly – I mean exactly -- what she wanted.
I contacted Clay B., the supervisor of the capitol building, who agreed to get the necessary work done immediately. We discovered that one of his employees, Art S., worked for Georgia O´Keeffe as a janitor on weekends. He personalized the entire operation. Thanks to Art, some things that seemed impossible were possible.
On the way down in the elevator, Georgia O´Keeffe, Juan and I had a discussion about Dadaism and surrealism. “You knew Francis Picabia. What was he like?” Tristan Tzara, André Breton, Max Ernst, Giorgio de Chirico, Picasso, Marcel Duchamp. She glowed like a candle. She and Juan were obviously surprised that a governor´s guy would know about such people.
I told her my favorite O'Keeffe painting was “Black Cross, New Mexico.” She burst out laughing like a little girl: “Like everybody else, I once was young and foolish. I gave that painting away to an out-of-state museum.”
The following week we learned that Juan was not coming to a routine meeting. He was out of state. I looked at Alan: “You don´t suppose he went to …”
“We will know soon enough.”
People all around us began to have second doubts. The changes Georgia O´Keeffe demanded were serious, expensive. Then, there was the whole matter of insurance. We was going to have millions of dollars hanging on the wall. What would prospective insurers say? Did we have the ability to protect paintings day and night?
Things came to a head. How were we going to pay for all that?
“Don´t worry about it,” I told a reunion of defensive retreatists and doubting Thomases. The only way I could make such a statement was that I was in charge of the governor's office budget and knew exactly where money was rat-holed.
The exhibition was an incredible success. “Black Cross” was there in all its glory. George O´Keeffe stood in line for several hours and greeted hundreds of people, one of whom was my mother. A Sunday painter and life-long admirer of O'Keeffe, it was a magic moment for her. Mom was born in West Texas, O'Keeffe country; the two chatted about how it was such a stark place. Even so, beauty was there, starting in cow skulls; it was up to you to find it.
I have attached a few paintings in our exhibit I found on the Internet. As I recall, other than “Black Cross,” the other paintings came from her home in Abiquiu.
I can´t tell you how much I regret we never continued our discussion about the old days. I never saw her or Juan again.
Alan P. passed away recently. He taught German and tap-dancing – the perfect person to shepherd a Georgia O'Keeffe exhibit. He also gave me a kitten. Alan was one in 326 million people.
When Georgia O'Keeffe died in 1986, a bitter legal battle broke out over inheritance of her paintings, homes and other possessions. Basically, her family wanted to exclude Juan. All I can say from what I personally observed over the months is that Juan was a highly capable administrator. He knew the art world cold. But what stands out most in my mind is how he was absolutely, totally dedicated to Georgia O´Keeffe. For the same reason you can´t fake creativity, you can´t fake dedication like he had.
Not long after the exhibition ended, Art the janitor came into my office. He opened a bag: “I have something for you.”
She had dedicated a book to me, Georgia O´Keeffe (Viking Studio).
An instant family heirloom.
People sometimes ask me what I think of the movie “Georgia O'Keeffe” (2009). Frankly, I was shocked; Hollywood actually did a good job. However, they did not capture that steely glint in her eyes.
I guess nobody can.
P.S. Thank you, Belartandstyle, for suggesting the article.
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