courtesy of Todd Webb Archive
Calvin Tomkins ~ The New Yorker
Included in a new book by Robyn Lea, titled “Dinner With Georgia O’Keeffe,” is a full-page photograph of the artist standing at her kitchen table, in New Mexico, slicing vegetables. She wears a starched white apron over a dark work shirt. Behind her is a modest, four-burner white stove, the same workmanlike model you used to find in nine out of ten American kitchens. O’Keeffe made dinner for me on that stove one night, in the fall of 1973, when I visited her at the Ghost Ranch.
It was a Sunday, and the local woman who usually cooked for her had the day off. Also present was Juan Hamilton, a twenty-seven-year-old artist and potter who had turned up at O’Keeffe’s door a week or so earlier to ask if she needed any kind of help around the house. Miss O’Keeffe (as she preferred to be called) asked him if he could drive a car. Hamilton said that he could, and so began a relationship that lasted until her death, thirteen years later, at the age of ninety-eight. (It also led O’Keeffe’s family to contest her will, under which a large share of her seventy-six-million-dollar estate had been left to Hamilton—the case was eventually settled out of court.) O’Keeffe was cooking a chicken in the oven. Hamilton had an easy way of teasing her, which she liked, and our conversation, as I recall it all these years later, was lively and a bit boisterous.
This happened on the last evening of my three-day visit to the Ghost Ranch. I had sent her a letter, saying I’d like to write about her. Two people who knew her well had told me that there would be no answer, but she wrote back right away—a brisk, handwritten note telling me to come to New Mexico and setting a firm date for my arrival. The Ghost Ranch was seventy miles northwest of Santa Fe, in the high desert landscape of red earth, blue sky, and distant, tawny mountains that her paintings have burned into our collective memory. O’Keeffe met me at the door of her smallish, single-story adobe house. She was standing very straight, and dressed entirely in white—ankle-length dress, jacket, shoes. Her white hair was pulled straight back and tied in a knot. She asked me a minimal question about my trip from New York, and showed me to the guest room—until then, I’d had no idea where I would be staying.
That afternoon, Hamilton drove us in O’Keeffe’s car—a tan Volkswagen minibus—to a Benedictine monastery that she had been to before. It was in the desert, seventeen miles away. She wanted to see the purple asters that grew plentifully down there at this time of year. Hamilton and I sat in the front, and O’Keeffe sat in back, bouncing rather merrily from side to side on the barely navigable dirt road. She talked about the country around Taos, where she had painted for a summer, in 1929, before finding the Ghost Ranch. “In the evening, with the sun at your back, that high sage-covered plain looks like an ocean,” she said. “The color up there—the blue-green of the sage, and the mountains, and the white flowers—is different from anything I’d ever seen. There’s nothing like it in Texas or even in Colorado.” (I am quoting from old notes, made in my room later that night. O’Keeffe did not permit note-taking, and I had been warned not to bring a tape recorder.) She was a lot more talkative than I’d thought she would be, and a lot more fun to be with.
The purple asters were less plentiful than they had been on her previous trips, but the monks were pleased to see her, and she chatted agreeably with them for an hour or so. On the drive back, she said it would be very easy for her to convert someone to Catholicism. “It has great appeal,” she said. “Not for me, of course, but I can see the appeal.” A few years after she discovered the Ghost Ranch and built her house there, the ranch (not including her property) was sold to the Presbyterian Church, which used it as a conference center. “I gave the Presbyterians a wide berth,” she told us. “You know about the Indian eye that passes over you without lingering, as though you didn’t exist? That was the way I looked at the Presbyterians, so they wouldn’t become too friendly.” O’Keeffe also owned a larger and more comfortable house in the village of Abiquiú, where she spent the winters. She had a large studio there, and a garden where she grew seventeen different types of squash and various other vegetables, but the Ghost Ranch was where she felt at home. “I knew the minute I got up here that this was where I wanted to live,” she said. “There is nothing in this house that I can get along without.”
On the night after the near-disaster in the kitchen, I wrote down two unrelated things she had said earlier that day. One had to do with all the long-distance walking she had done over the years. “I think I’ve taken a bath in every brook from Abiquiú to Española—irrigation ditches are fine for bathing, too,” she said. The other was, “I’m much more down-to-earth than people give me credit for. At times, I’m ridiculously realistic.”
O’Keeffe’s star may have dimmed a bit during the past three decades, but that was never going to be permanent. Her current retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum (through July 23rd) brings her back, vivid as ever, quietly imperious, and indelibly herself.