Georgia on My Mind

Georgia O’Keeffe, “Sky above Clouds IV” (1965), restricted gift of the Paul and Gabriella Rosenbaum Foundation, gift of Georgia O’Keeffe (image © The Art Institute of Chicago) (click to enlarge)

I’d already had several art-related, part-time jobs by 1966 when I began working for Eugene Goossen, a professor of Art History at Hunter College, a critic, and a curator. He was in the process of organizing the forthcoming Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art (it would be the last retrospective of her work while she was alive). Like the painters Martha Edelheit in 1970 and Joyce Kozloff in 1972 (see their essays about O’Keeffe in Painters on Paintings and Hyperallergic, respectively), I was searching for a role model. There weren’t many (In art school at the University of Michigan I had only one woman professor). Artists like Helen Frankenthaler, Grace Hartigan, Jane Frielicher, Joan Mitchell, and Lee Bontecou were much younger than O’Keeffe, Louise Nevelson was inaccessible, and I was not yet fully aware of Louise Bourgeois. Besides, at the time, none of them were particularly interested in fluttery overtures from twenty-something women artists. O’Keeffe was different: she lived far away in a sun-baked universe. She was mysterious. She’d been married to Alfred Stieglitz and had maintained her identity and independence. She painted bones. She was a loner, claiming to have eschewed the trappings of urbanity. Using Goossen as a reference, I began writing to her, asking if I might make the pilgrimage to Abiquiu, New Mexico, to visit. In retrospect, I think she enjoyed entreaties from younger artists; it amused her that we were so anxious to meet her, to try and grasp some of her mojo. We went back and forth: “Why would I want to come all the way out there?” she had asked (knowing very well why); “Because it would mean so much to me,” I had replied (happy to be a sycophant). After about three or four communiqués — I still cherish the letters — I was about to make my travel plans when O’Keeffe suddenly announced that she’d be coming to New York to work with Goossen on the Whitney show and thus we could meet in the city. I was disappointed: I liked the idea of the long journey, of being with her in her singular environment. But I was to meet her. She suggested we have dinner together at the Stanhope, a lovely, rather austere, now defunct hotel across from the Metropolitan Museum — her treat. I don’t remember much: I was too nervous, unfortunately, to retain most of our evening. But I do remember my first impression: O’Keeffe was tiny in stature, her features rapier-sharp, her face lined, powerful and beautiful in the way we have all come to know. After all, she’s so iconic she’s graced an American postage stamp. Dressed in what had become her signature costume: white shirt, black skirt, black jacket, on her feet soft black cotton Chinese slipper/ shoes that had recently come into fashion. She also wore a large, elegant, silver spiral pin, perhaps a Calder, fastened at the top closure of her blouse. Poised, curious, and collected, O’Keeffe lectured me about what a bad idea it was for me to marry (uh-oh, too late, I’d wed just a few months before this admonition). She couldn’t understand why I would want to do such a stupid thing, why I’d tie myself down in wedlock (she was right: it was a terrible marriage). I didn’t have the courage to ask her why, if she thought it was such a bad idea, she’d been married herself. O’Keeffe told me how wonderful it had been recently to fly and see above the clouds. This experience had resulted in a startling group of cloud paintings, one of which, “Sky Above Clouds IV” (1965), is so large that it is in itself an environment, at eight feet high by twenty-four feet long. Some of the cloud series are composed of cottony white forms imposed on a strong blue sky, while others are quite abstracted, evoking lozenge-shaped white bricks or Chiclet chewing gum, in a steady, streaming, and descending formation. These powerful paintings are unlike much of the work with which we are most familiar: they are stylized, simplified, spare, and absent of her usual technical virtuosity or detail. Though O’Keeffe had explored abstraction early in her career, and continued to do so, the cloud pictures do not align themselves with her more colorful and complex non-representational works. They seem to exist in a chapter of their own.

Later, over coffee, O’Keeffe spoke a bit about her studio and her work: when she’d leave her beloved New Mexico to come north each year (when Stieglitz was still alive she would travel back and forth), she had no need for storage: she would simply walk through the field where she’d left the bones and skulls for her paintings and they would be there, just as she’d left them. I saw her again that week while she and Goossen were going over images, loan forms and paperwork related to the forthcoming exhibition, and then she returned home. A few years later I had an invitation to the Whitney opening and was excited to see her again. As I moved forward to greet her along with many others, I realized, sadly, that though it had only been a short time since we’d met, she no longer knew me.

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