G eorgia O’Keeffe knew that lifelong learning is one of the best-kept secrets of youth. Although her body had started to deteriorate before her death at the age of 98 – perhaps the gravest loss being her eyesight, which failed as a result of macular degeneration – the artist persisted in pioneering new frontiers in her art, staving off the mental rigidity that most others succumb to in old age. “I can see what I want to paint. The thing that makes you want to create is still there,” she famously said at the time. So she painted from memory and her imagination and, beginning in the 1970s, hired assistants to help with her artistic process. Then she went even further.
Georgia O’Keeffe’s Century of American Art
In 1974, when she was 87 years old, she took up an entirely new medium: ceramics. The tactile form was more conducive to her altered senses, and it allowed her to experience the thrill of learning something entirely new.
Helping O’Keeffe discover her new medium was her young confidant and friend Juan Hamilton, a sculptor who’d arrived on her doorstep looking for a job a few years earlier. Hamilton, then 27, had come with his friend, O’Keeffe’s plumber, but the iconic artist was in no mood for unannounced visitors. Determined fans and tourists had a pesky habit of trespassing onto her secluded Ghost Ranch studio in New Mexico and interrupting her beloved quiet. So she turned them away. But when, a few months later, Hamilton went back to O’Keeffe’s one morning and knocked on the door, and again enquired about work, she asked him if he had any experience packing a shipping crate. “It wasn’t a high-paying job, but I didn’t have anything else going on in my life – I was recently divorced and starting a new life, and Georgia was one of the most interesting women I had ever met,” Hamilton told Harper’s Bazaar in 2016. He started helping her with paperwork and odd jobs around the house. “The next thing I knew, I was there 10 to 12 hours a day,” he said.
The pair became close friends and soon Hamilton started to teach O’Keeffe the pottery wheel. “When seeing became more difficult it was the medium she picked up for artistic expression,” says Kayla Carlsen, head of Sotheby’s American Art. “I do think that she took it seriously. It was a process that she found engaging and enjoyed, and she was prolific. There is a large body of work produced circa 1980 with Juan’s inspiration and assistance.”
Now, a selection of those pots from O’Keeffe’s final years are going on sale for the first time ever at Sotheby’s as part of an auction of more than 100 works from Hamilton’s collection. In a fitting juxtaposition, the auction house is also offering six works by Hamilton, including his 2010 watercolour on paper Departure Red Sea II, estimated to fetch $10,000 to $15,000. The items in the sale span decades, forming a timeline of sorts of O’Keeffe’s life and the artistic circles in which she travelled.
There’s a vivid still life of flowers by Marsden Hartley – an artist whom O’Keeffe’s partner Alfred Stieglitz tirelessly championed at his legendary New York gallery 291 – which dates to 1917, the same year that Stieglitz gave O’Keeffe her solo debut at the gallery.
At the time, O’Keeffe, the 28-year-old daughter of a Wisconsin dairy farmer, was unknown to the art world. Stieglitz, then in his 50s, was at the centre of it, both as an avant-garde photographer and an influential New York gallerist. O’Keeffe had visited 291 gallery before – it was where she first encountered Picasso and Matisse works in the flesh – but she did not make Stieglitz’s acquaintance until she learned that he’d exhibited some of her drawings there without her knowledge. Initially, she wanted him to remove them, but their relationship, both professional and personal, was bound to endure.
On 1 June 1917, just before O’Keeffe returned to Texas, where she had been working as a teacher, Stieglitz, who was still (unhappily) married at the time, wrote to her: “How I wanted to photograph you – the hands – the mouth – & eyes – & the enveloped in black body – the touch of white – & the throat – but I didn’t want to break into your time.” Stieglitz eventually convinced O’Keeffe to move to New York the following year and they married in 1924.
By this time O’Keeffe had acquiesced to Stieglitz’s desire to photograph her and spent several years sitting for his experimental multi-part work of her. The “portrait”, which now hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, DC, ultimately swelled into 500 photographs, taken over a span of 20 years. One of those images, a 1933 study of O’Keeffe’s hand, photographed gripping the spare tyre of her Ford sedan, is on sale as part of the Hamilton collection. It’s a particularly poignant shot knowing that O’Keeffe had just learned to drive.
In the summer of 1929, she bought her first car and travelled to New Mexico with a friend, the artist Rebecca Strand, while Stieglitz stayed behind in New York. O’Keeffe ended up living there for five months, all the while painting the landscape, animal bones and light. O’Keeffe thrived with her newfound independence and continued to travel often. In the summer of 1932, she and Stieglitz’s neice took a trip to Quebec, Canada, venturing along the far eastern edge of the Gaspé Peninsula. “We got out of the car to take a walk and found a cabin under trees over a grand high rock and the sea with a sandy beach below that is so perfect we still can’t believe it true,” she wrote in a letter to Stieglitz. “You couldn’t think of anything more perfect – I couldn’t imagine such a place existing – the cliff rising up back of it all is as grand as anything I’ve seen.” O’Keeffe declared the peninsula “a grand place to paint” – and so she did just that, composing Nature Forms – Gaspé, another painting in the forthcoming sale. The cool blue swirls of wind and sea are unmistakable, but the painting marks O’Keeffe’s gradual transition toward abstraction. To Carlsen, the “luscious and undulating forms” are reminiscent of Stieglitz’s series of cloud photographs, titled Equivalents, in which he pointed the lens upward “so you only had forms instead of a sense of place”.
While Gaspé is among the top lots in the sale, Carlsen says she’s most excited by the personal belongings on offer. “Although I’ve handled a lot of O’Keeffe and Stieglitz circle artists, I have never and will probably never again have the honour of handling the personal effects,” she said. “These things are special.” Among the items are unpublished manuscripts O’Keeffe wrote on subjects that range from Stieglitz’s photography to abstract art, and even her own ideas about her work (that manuscript is titled My Eyes and Painting). There’s also a box of handwritten recipes, pots of pigment, photo albums, an inscribed book about trees, and an early still life that O’Keeffe painted on the reverse of another work, by Alfred Stieglitz’s father, Edward Stieglitz. The double-sided painting demonstrates “how they were all intertwined”, Carlsen says.
Another object that brings to life a side of O’Keeffe’s personality we might not otherwise see is a silver pin in the shape of the letters “O-K”. It looks identical to a pin that the sculptor Alexander Calder had made O’Keeffe out of brass, but when the painter’s hair turned white, she decided it no longer matched her colouring, so she hired a local artisan to copy the pin in silver. (The original brass pin belongs to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe.)
A number of O’Keeffe’s drawings, dating from throughout her career, are also included in the sale. A circa 1940 drawing of the patio at Ghost Ranch commemorates O’Keeffe’s purchase of her cherished property in northern New Mexico. At Ghost Ranch, she felt truly home at last. She never tired of painting its red rocky landscape or the Pedernal Mountain in the distance, which has been referred to as O’Keeffe’s Mont Sainte-Victoire – Cézanne’s favourite mountain motif. “It’s my private mountain,” she once said of the formation she’d depicted at least 30 times. “It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” She would go on to buy a second property in New Mexico, a historic hacienda in the town of Abiquiú in 1945, but O’Keeffe wouldn’t be left to her desert seclusion for long. The following year, she became the first woman to have a retrospective at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and returned to the city for the opening. It was “a glorious exposition. In a sense a miracle,” as Stieglitz put it.
Later that year, Stieglitz suffered a massive stroke and O’Keeffe flew again to New York from Albuquerque. After he died, she returned home to New Mexico where she would remain for the next 37 years of her life. O’Keeffe wasn’t looking for another friend when Hamilton arrived at her door that day in 1973. “I do not wish to try to live among many people – they tire me more than anything,” she said.
Yet their unlikely friendship thrived for decades, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious to outsiders. “They very quickly became confidants,” Carlsen said. “He, with the understanding that she was ageing, became her caretaker. He felt honoured to be able to contribute to her life in a meaningful way. But I’m under the impression that there was a great deal of admiration between them.” O’Keeffe took the young artist under her wing and helped him get shows in New York. In 1978, he had an exhibition at the Robert Miller Gallery. “Warhol and Joni Mitchell came to my opening – I couldn’t believe it!” he told Harper’s Bazaar.
Less than a decade later, in March 1986, O’Keeffe died. She left Hamilton much of her art collection, her home and belongings, a selection of which he later donated to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. “It has been a true privilege to live with and care for these works for many years,” Hamilton said in a statement. “But it is now time to allow others the opportunity to enjoy and learn from these treasures. I hope that they will inspire a new generation of admirers and collectors of O’Keeffe, Stieglitz, and their inimitable circle, as they have long inspired me.”