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I do not trust my memory. I have no notes or photographs. There may be errors in this essay. I was 29, working at the Tamarind Lithography Institute in Albuquerque. I asked everyone if he/she knew Georgia O’Keeffe and whether it would be possible to meet her. Like many young women artists, I was searching for role models. Today, I wonder at my audacity, pressing to visit an 84-year-old icon who was known for protecting her privacy.
Mary Adams, wife of Tamarind’s director Clinton Adams, was a social worker, who traveled across the state to different communities. She knew Georgia, who quietly provided services — such as buying uniforms for a high school sports team! — for the people of her town, Abiquiu. Ms. Adams visited that area about once a month, and promised to invite me on her next trip. Time passed. Then one afternoon when we were madly finishing the last prints, she called to say she’d be seeing O’Keeffe the following day, that we would be driving up in the morning and staying for lunch.
It had rained during the night: the earth was a moist, rich brown. The light across the fields and mountains was crystalline, shifting. It was late winter/early spring. As we approached the house, I told myself to make a mental record. The adobe fenced walls and house are now famous. At first, we sat in the living room; she had two other visitors, her younger sister from Beverly Hills and a friend. They discussed hiking and gardening, subjects about which I knew nothing. I felt foolish. There were several small Arthur Dove works, circa 1913–17, on the ledge under a large window at the far end of the room. Outdoors, one could see desert vegetation and a garden off to the side.
After awhile, we moved to the dining room and were introduced to the women who cooked and served our lunch. As I recall, conversation with them was in English and Spanish. I was seated across from Georgia and next to Mary. It was a lively salad and fragrant chicken stew, prepared with herbs and greens from the garden, tasting especially fresh and delicious, served with whole grain bread just baked in the kitchen — no wine. She was eager to move the household to her summer home, Ghost Ranch, where there was no central heating or electricity. The others were not ready to leave, as the snow had just begun to melt on the mountains.
When Mary asked about the Arthur Doves, Georgia gleefully regaled us with stories about her negotiations with Joseph Hirshhorn, the industrialist and collector, how she was torturing him. He had paid her a pilgrimage and wanted to buy them. I often wondered whether he succeeded in acquiring them. She then asked if I knew the critic Barbara Rose (I did), who had been there recently and written about O’Keeffe’s art extensively. Georgia made visits to New York about twice a year, read the art magazines and knew what was happening — she managed her isolation without missing a trick.
One of O’Keeffe’s large paintings of rocks hung behind her as she sat at the table; she had recently completed it. Throughout the 1960s, she had been creating a series of solitary rocks, which nearly filled the paintings’ surfaces. They have remained her most mysterious, obdurate, and “difficult” works for me. Smooth, shiny, impersonal, polished, they radiate a glow from no obvious light source. The forms are reminiscent of her earliest abstractions. I even wondered whether they were a riff on Minimalism, but her art was never ironic.
Mary wanted to help me enter into the conversation, so she said, “Joyce is a painter.” O’Keeffe’s response: “How do you prime your canvas?” I was working on unprimed canvas, which she found appalling: “How do you know they will last?” I mumbled, “I don’t.” She and her staff painted and sanded as many as ten layers of gesso, handled the pieces with white gloves, and were known to withdraw them from exhibitions if they were mistreated. We were not invited into the studio. Mary had advised me that one could not ask to see the studio; O’Keeffe would initiate if she were in the mood. Later I realized that there might not have been any ongoing work at that time.
During the 1970s, Lucy Lippard, Miriam Schapiro, Judy Chicago, and other feminists put forth a theory about women’s art, finding that an enclosure or rounded form was at the center of much work by women, including O’Keeffe, whose flower paintings, begun in the 1920s, had often been described as symbolic of female sexuality. In 1943 she replied:
I made you take time to look at what I saw and when you took time to really notice my flowers you hung all your own associations with flowers on my flower and you write about my flower as if I think and see what you think and see of the flower — and I don’t.
That became her most quoted statement. The rock paintings might be viewed as womblike as well; the artist would surely have rejected that interpretation.
Looking at O’Keeffe’s paintings from that period, I am not sure which rock I saw that day. We didn’t know that the artist’s eyes were failing, that these were to be her final two-dimensional pieces. As we departed, I watched her standing inside the gate that framed her home. She was wearing a crisp white blouse, long dark skirt, and short black jacket, with her hair pulled severely back, standing erect and waving, looking exactly as she was supposed to look.
Postscript: O’Keeffe died in 1986. In 1997, along with many feminist artists and writers, I was invited to the White House by then First Lady Hillary Clinton for the presentation of the first artwork by a woman to the White House collection: “Bear Lake, New Mexico” (1930) by Georgia O’Keeffe.
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