Friday, March 7, 2008

Meeting Gorgia O'Keeffe - by Gayil Nalls

Meeting Gorgia O'Keeffe - by Gayil Nalls

When I was in my first year of art school, Georgia O’Keeffe was a dominant and legendary figure in the art world. She was the best-known woman artist in contemporary American art and there was no question that her large iconic and sexual flower paintings helped establish modern art. I assumed, as did most of the artists I knew, that she was the equal of any important artist of the time. However, formal education channels did not recognize her at all. In fact, my art history textbook “Gardner’s Art Through the Ages” (1970) contained not one-woman artist—not O’Keefe, not even a mention of Mary Cassatt in the Impressionist section. As a person who had come of age during the 1960’s and the civil rights protests, I really couldn’t fathom that an American version of the history of art had denied the female gender.

It wasn’t that I thought this gender oversight might somehow have been due to a geographical glitch that I left Richmond, Virginia, for New York City to study with Larry Rivers at Parsons School of Design. It was that the aesthetics, psychology and implied physics of River’s “Double Portrait of Birdie” were calling.

After studying a couple of years in New York with not only Larry Rivers, but also Elaine de Kooning and others, I moved to Washington, D.C. to study with Gene Davis. In time, I established a studio across from National Museum of American Art (then The National Collection of Fine Art) and began showing the work I was creating there, which attracted a collector. Eventually, after buying several works from my exhibitions, he called to introduce himself as Theodore Amussen, head of publications and the editor-in-chief of the National Gallery of Art, and he asked to visit the studio. Ted was a Harvard graduate who had studied at the Sorbonne. He had been in publishing most of his adult life and had championed many creative people, including Mark Rothko. He’d laugh and shake his head when talking about discovering and publishing Norman Mailer’s first book “The Naked and The Dead” (1948) which was based on Mailer’s combat experience in the Philippines during World War II. Interestingly, the book had been written while Mailer was studying at the Sorbonne. Ted was working for Rinehart & Company in New York at the time and said he had to reduce the obscene language in it before he could get it published, mentioning that it was he who came up with the word “fug” to replace another four-letter word. The brash Mailer was just twenty-five when Ted introduced the world to his first book, changing Mailer’s life forever.

One day, while working in my studio, Ted called. He said he needed me to come to his office at the National Gallery by noon, that he wouldn’t take no for an answer, that there was someone who wanted to meet me. I cleaned up and walked down to the administrative office triangle of the National Gallery’s East Wing – (one of I.M. Pei’s greatest buildings—a rare event in D.C.). As I entered Ted’s office and I saw a woman dressed in black, sitting on the couch. “This is the artist I was telling you about,” Ted said to her. From where she sat she held out her hand and motioned me to sit beside her. Georgia O’Keeffe placed her hand on mine and held it and didn’t let up.  She complimented me on my work and I on hers. I felt we already knew each other, that we supported one another – that she was telling me not to forget her. She didn’t let go until we got up. Ted said that she was visiting The National Gallery to help plan a major exhibition of her work— the first since a small retrospective of paintings held at the Brooklyn Museum in 1927. Yet…Ted was holding up different nude images O’Keeffe that Stieglitz had taken of her when she was young and was asking her what she remembered about them. I had heard that in the 1970’s O’Keeffe’s eyesight had begun to fail and to compensate, she turned to making sculpture, so Ted described some of the details of the photographs he was holding before she could completely recall the image. As Ted talked, she used secret hand signals to convey to me her humor, her strength, her dominance.

In 1916, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz had given O’Keefe’s her first one-person show in New York City and not long after that they were married. In 1949, three years after her Stieglitz died, O’Keeffe had given the National Gallery 1,600 of his photographs, some of which were before us.

Ted got a call for us all to come to lunch. And I left the office in a state of disbelief … MoMA had never given her a museum show? No museum in the United States had given this artist an exhibition since then? The answer was sadly…no; nor had they recognized any other American woman artist.

We entered the new East Wing dining room where a long table was beautifully set. O’Keeffe was joined by her assistant and companion Juan Hamilton and the curators with whom he had been meeting. The Director of National Gallery of Art, J. Carter Brown, then made his entrance and together the men fawned over O’Keeffe before sitting down at the table dominated by the male curators.

When Georgia O’Keeffe, one of the most unique, independent and pioneering talents in American art, died in 1986 at age 98, she left ten paintings to the National Gallery. It was then revealed that the museum had never bought one of her paintings during her long life. The paintings they had hung had been there on long-term loan, including some from the artist herself. The exhibition “Georgia O’Keeffe: 1887-1986” that the National Gallery of Art had organized opened November 1st, 1987; A year too late for the artist. The exhibition then went to The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where it opened in November of 1988 and remained on view until February of 1989. I visited both exhibitions and after viewing the works, I lingered in the museum gift shops and watched the amount of money that was being made selling images of O’Keeffe’s art reproduced on everything under the sun.

It was the piercing sun of New Mexico, the earth and forms of nature that touched her soul and gave her life deep meaning. People seemed to buy the mass-produced items in response to a longing to sleep under the stars with her.

Through our hands we both knew where other went to create.




New York City, February 2008


Gayil Nalls © 2008, All rights reserved.


At March 9, 2008 at 10:35 PM , Blogger sol haring said...
I found this great blog with a film clip!

At March 11, 2008 at 10:42 AM , Blogger Arlene said...

a touching encounter....reminding us of the significance of mentoring and role modeling....and that despite the lack of recognition by a male-dominated art world, OKeefe never doubted her path, but pursued her art and paved the way for other women, such as the inspiration that Gayil received from Georgia.
Arlene Krebs, 35-year sister-friend of Gayil's, and fortunate to have once had a private tour of OKeefe's home in Abiquiu.


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