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First Person: Me and Georgia O'Keeffe

She asked me about the painting: Did I have it at home now? Why did I like it? I asked if she would tell me about it. She froze and said only, "It's all there."

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This is the letter I wrote Georgia O'Keeffe in April of 1973:

Dear Georgia O'Keeffe:

I've wanted to write you for many years but have been reluctant to intrude.

I've admired you, revered your work since my first exposure to your painting in the old Whitney in a group show in the forties. Yours were the first and only reproductions I bought and lived with.

For many years I hied me to the Downtown Gallery--my first stop whenever I could get to New York and Edith Halpert would show me your recent works.

On our fifteenth wedding anniversary my husband wanted to know what I would like most in this world. What I wanted was a Georgia O'Keeffe. This was 1954.

I've lived with and loved and been grateful to you for your painting which has been so special to my life. (I selected "Green-Grey Abstraction," 1931.)

Somehow, this epitomizes for me the subtle tho abstract essence of growth--each meticulous brush stroke attesting to caring and the whole capturing the excitement of evolvement, of development.

Thank you,

Jane Weinberg

P.S. I came to see you in Abiquiu in '48, but never even got near enough to present my letter of introduction. I was mistaken for a visiting nurse who had not arrived that week because of floods and I ended up taking an infant with a distended belly and the Spanish-speaking mother and grandmother many miles to a clinic. No other transportation was available. I saw no cars in Abiquiu that day. So, my carefully planned and precious pilgrimage was diverted.

But I did get the chance to feel the uncompromising starkness, the unique clarity and beauty of the light and color of the mountains and the rarified atmosphere in which you work. This supplemented my understanding and appreciation of your works. (The mother kept her volunteered promise and sent me pinon nuts for Christmas.)

Miss O'Keeffe's letter to me:

April 10, 1973

Abiquiu

Dear Mrs. Weinberg:

I was very pleased to hear from you. I got out my book to see whether you owned the painting you spoke of and I find that you do. I always wondered what sort of person bought that painting. I am glad you seem to enjoy it.

If you come this way again let me know you are coming.

Sincerely,

Georgia O'Keeffe

Miss O'Keeffe and I planned our visit for August 28, 1976, at Ghost Ranch. She suggested I stay at the conference center there. I wrote her a letter confirming our plan.

However, she was not at her Ghost Ranch house when I arrived. The people at the conference center were very protective of her privacy and reluctant to give me any information.

When I telephoned her, she was quite irate and asked what I was doing at Ghost Ranch--I was supposed to be in Abiquiu, 12 miles south. It seems she had confused me with another "Jane," a student who helped in her household and had been scheduled to be there that day.

After we got that straightened out, she gave me detailed instructions including the warning not to get out of the car when I arrived at the house in Abiquiu but to honk loudly and someone would come for me because she had two vicious chow guard dogs.

Miss O'Keeffe "received" me. She was seated in her living room, dressed in an enveloping crisp white robe/gown that struck me as ceremonial, elegant, unique. Its sharp folds were reminiscent of Japanese prints. She said she had had it designed by a woman in New Mexico in all black as well as white. She said that originally Calder had designed the "OK" silver pin she was wearing in brass but when her hair turned gray she had wanted it in silver.

She asked me about my silver Navajo pendant. I took it off and gave it to her to hold. She said it was nice on the thumb.

Two long glasses of freshly squeezed homegrown raspberry juice were served us. Miss O'Keeffe was annoyed that the expected sprigs of mint weren't on the glasses. She liked the color contrast.

Miss O'Keeffe started the conversation by saying that she didn't see many people these days, that it took her three days to get back to herself after one day of visiting. She said she didn't like many people, that she didn't get along well with people.

With detached amusement she told me that she had recently fired the man who helped her plant her garden. For 15 years she had shown him how to plant carrots. He had good hands, but he still couldn't do it alone, so she fired him.

She liked to garden but it was a conflict because it took so much time. She had repotted a Christ thorn plant that morning. It pleased her that it made a cross. Catholicism had appeal, but it just wasn't for her. A plant in her kitchen had needed repotting and it suddenly grew so much that it toppled over. When she first came to New Mexico she had to grow her own vegetables because none were readily available.

She bought the house at Ghost Ranch from a man who was a flier. When the Presbyterians took over the ranch they wanted her to sell them her house. But she wouldn't. She would look right past all the Presbyterians, just not see them, like the Indians do in Peru. She thought she'd be unhappy with all those people swarming about. She asked if I was Presbyterian. I said, "No, I'm Jewish." She said, "I never think about things like that."

While we were talking, one of the chows, the rusty one, had come over to me and I was absently petting him. She said it was most unusual. The dogs were quite ferocious and didn't like strangers. ("They bite very well," O'Keeffe once said, according to Laurie Lisle in her 1980 book, Portrait of an Artist. "I've seen more than one pair of shoes fill with blood.")

She said to the dog, "How lucky you are today. You don't often get treated so well." She winked and said, "I call them 'the people.'"

I gave her the presents I had brought. Miss O'Keeffe said that the people in Abiquiu never open presents while the giver is there. I said, "They're yours; do anything you like with them."

She then opened the large package that contained the hand-woven mohair throw. Its colors were subdued beiges and whites. Miss O'Keeffe said, "I never have anything with color here--only black and white; colors distract me." I said nothing.

She opened the records I had brought. I had ferreted out some Chinese music. She said the conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, a specialist in Chinese music, had told her the Chinese records she had were not authentic and that none were available in the United States.

The third gift was an album of Edith Sitwell reading her own poems--Facade, music by William Walton. I had enjoyed them, and had found another album for her. She said she wasn't interested in old people. When she was in London someone had asked her if she was Edith Sitwell. She felt insulted. She thought that perhaps it was because they both wore turbans. She had once sat next to Edith Sitwell in London. O'Keeffe had liked that time in her life when she was a nobody. Being a somebody was sometimes difficult. I asked her if she knew the poem by Emily Dickinson about that. I only remembered the last verse:

How dreary to be somebody!

How public, like a frog

To tell your name the live-long day

To an admiring bog!

She made no comment.

She dusted the records. The man who came to fix the machine had complimented her on its cleanliness.

Miss O'Keeffe said she was delighted and surprised that the young liked her work so much. There had been a lot of response from her 1970 retrospective at the Whitney.

But her problem with the young she had contact with was that somehow they tried to be like her. They couldn't break away and be their own persons. Young artists complain to her they can't get recognized. They want to show her their work. She never wanted to show her work--she just wanted to paint. The women's libbers should spend more time doing their thing instead of making noise about women's lib.

She asked if I had any children. Did I feed my sons well? Were they tall?

She asked what my sons did. I said one makes documentaries and the other is a federal magistrate. She knew a federal district judge whose talky wife kept trying to pull strings to get him on the Supreme Court--and did more harm than good.

A woman had made a documentary about her. She had seen another one this woman had done and liked it. She enjoyed having the film done.

Did I work? I said I did counseling. The people she knew who had been analyzed all said the same things. One woman lost one set of symptoms and got another set just as bad. People had to solve their own problems. The critics who tried to analyze her work attributed intentions to her that were way off the mark.

Did I have the painting at home now? Why did I like it? I said I had tried to tell her in my letter that I liked the intensity in the center of the painting, the darkness, and the bright energy on the outside; that it seemed to me an abstract of something being and growing, like a vital leaf. I asked her if she would tell me about it. She froze and said only, "It's all there." Undeterred, I said it seemed to me to incorporate many of the themes of the jack-in-the-pulpit series.

She asked if I had read the Art of Zen Archery. I had and had been interested and impressed by it. She said the painting was like that; it wasn't part of any series; it had come out whole and she never had to change it or make another. Usually she knew ahead of time what she wanted to paint, but had to work on her paintings. This one was different. Had I noticed the star on the back of the painting? She only put stars on paintings she especially liked.

I said, "It vibrates." She said curtly, "Yes, now that it's clean."

I said it was generous of her to offer to pay for the cleaning. She said, well, she thought it was the only way she could get it done. I said, "But you found out differently."

This interchange had to do with Miss O'Keeffe's request the year before that I get the painting cleaned so that it could be included in the book she was planning. At that time I had written her this letter:

October 4, 1975

Dear Miss O'Keeffe:

You were most generous to offer to pay for the conservation needs of "Green-Grey Abstraction." I thank you for your thoughtfulness. But, at least for now, it's my baby, and fortunately I am able to take care of it.

I had asked Jim Speyer about cleaning it two years ago and he said not to do it.

It's reassuring to know that you have confidence in Mr. Pomerantz. I gather that he is charging me less than he normally would because of you.

It has been arranged with Mr. Pomerantz and the Art Institute for him to pick up the painting October sixth or seventh and he plans to have it ready for photographing by November.

Mr. Pomerantz and Mr. Hamilton mentioned the darkened areas in the upper center of the canvas--of which, of course, I was aware. When I checked the records I found that the receipt from the American Federation of Arts, dated 12/14/55, noted this condition: "Darkened areas on surface of canvas, upper center, may be deliberate."

Mr. Pomerantz said he didn't want to retouch it. If you want it done, please advise.

I have an inkling of the scope, detail and organization necessary for you to prepare your book. I admire you.

I would like it if there's anything I could do to help.

Sincerely,

Jane Weinberg

Abiquiu, New Mexico

October 13, 1975

Dear Mrs. Weinberg,

Thank you for your letter and for getting the picture fixed. Mr. Pomerantz did quite a bit of work for me when he was in the East, and I think he's very good.

There are many things about doing a book that are very aggravating that you would like to give to someone else to do but have to do yourself. It's not my kind of fun. But maybe it will get finished.

Thank you for offering to help.

Sincerely,

Georgia O'Keeffe

She asked me if the reprints from the two paintings at the O'Grady gallery in Chicago had sold well. I thought so. "Well, they were only seven dollars, weren't they?"

I stood up, preparing to go. She said she had thought she had a sore throat but it was fine now. She walked over to the black leather Eames chair and said it was wonderfully comfortable, wouldn't I like to lie in it?

Instead, I walked over to the long shelf that held a number of large black pots and touched one. She said, "Nice, aren't they? I'm doing some pottery but they're not very good. I took some lessons in Los Angeles."

I mentioned the small painting by Arthur Dove at the far end of the room. It was the only painting in that large white room. Miss O'Keeffe said she was fond of Dove.

Every time I made a move to leave, Miss O'Keeffe would come up with something new. This time, to my delight, she said some of the proofs of the paintings for her book had come that morning. Indeed I did want to see them. She pulled out Green-Grey Abstraction and said she hadn't decided whether or not to include it. Final decisions hadn't been made. I said I hoped she would but I could understand that the book as a whole had to be considered. She gathered the proofs from the top of the file cabinet, took them over to the narrow bench by the window, which had a thin pad on it. "This is where I sleep--because of the view. You know, the only way to see these hills is on horseback, but I don't do that now because I get stiff." (Miss O'Keeffe was almost 89 years old.)

I handed her her magnifying glass (she had only peripheral vision) and we knelt at the bench. When she couldn't sleep at two or three in the morning she sometimes made little notes. Her publisher had said she should publish them but she wasn't sure they were worth it. Juan Hamilton (her young companion and business adviser) was staying in New York until all the proofs had been pulled even though he didn't like staying there. She would have used the yellow pelvis one for the cover but the owner wouldn't have it cleaned. One of the reproductions with the gray stone had originally been photographed poorly--before the war she had used brushes with heavy and light bristles and as a result some of the paint was heavier--and if not photographed correctly didn't look right. I admired the type and its placement. She thought it too slanted. I commented on the quality of the paper. Yes, but unfortunately the book was going to have to be more expensive than she would like.

We examined all the proofs and Miss O'Keeffe made comments. It was exciting. She was meticulous in her attention to every detail and was confident of her judgments.

I said I really had to go, that she must be tired. She wanted me to see the patio first.

The thick walls were all original. The well had had a little house on it but it blew down. Yes, that was the patio door from her paintings. It led to the storeroom where she kept all her paintings. She never was satisfied that she had gotten the painting of the door right. When she looked out over the hills, she thought there must be a door out there somewhere. The people at the Santa Fe Opera were talking about a museum on their grounds for all her paintings.

I noticed the clouds and asked if Stieglitz had photographed them. She laughed and said, "Stieglitz in Abiquiu--50 miles from the nearest doctor--and not a very good one at that! The only clouds he photographed were between the house and barn in Lake George [New York]."

When we came in she said "One more thing" and led the way to the dim, narrow, tunnellike passageway toward the dining room. There was a lighted niche in the adobe wall that had been glassed over. In it, suspended vertically in yellowish liquid, was a spine. It took me by surprise and I laughed. Miss O'Keeffe asked sternly if I knew what it was. I said I thought it was a snake's skeleton. She neither confirmed nor denied it.

But then I was suddenly sobered. At the end of the hall was her painting of the black stone, which filled the whole canvas. It was breathtaking! I was transfixed.

We returned to the living room, saying nothing until we had gathered up the proofs and returned them to their original place. I said everything was so wonderfully orderly. Miss O'Keeffe said, "Everything but my books. They need rearranging; I can't lay my hands on what I want." Did I think I could stay and rearrange them? Incredible! It was one thing I knew I could do well for her--and wanted to. But I had a life in Chicago--far away from all this magic.

Miss O'Keeffe came out to the car with me. She smiled and said, "It's all right--I'm not sure I'd want another person around."

From the car, I turned and saw Georgia O'Keeffe standing there--motionless.

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