Looking back, the simplicity of what I did was the
boldness of a very young artist seeing no barriers
between herself "and a living legend, a central
figure in American art: Georgia O'Keeffe." Think of
my naivete going to a veteran artist and asking for
her help to launch new work. The openness and
directness of my untutored approach so astonished
O'Keeffe that she took me under her wing and I became
a protege of sorts. If there had been fifty people
who took the same approach she would have stopped
them long ago, but no one else was direct enough to
say to O'Keeffe, "I understand what you're doing
because I understand what I'm doing." That's the
whole point in explaining how our relationship took
its shape. If you stop to think about it, that's
When I first met O'Keeffe in 1968 I was learning to
survive. I brought my artworks to show her --unsure if she'd buy them --
why would O'Keeffe purchase a young artist's work? But she did, indeed, pay
$2,000 for my early fiberglass form, Obsidian, 1967. [see her first letter, dated July 3, 1968,
two views of Obsidian].
The fact is that she made this decision and no on can gainsay her motives.
But --why might she have done this? A couple of things that come to mind:
She was being generous and was helping me, so that I wouldn't lose sight of
my work, or become discouraged in pursuing the unfolding growth of my work;
She found a kinship with my work and thought it was honest and direct and
wanted to own it; a typical reaction of people who value beauty, who are in
the world of beauty and constantly exposed to it.
But the fact is that whatever were her own personal, private reasons this
established artist, brilliant in her career and a pioneer in women's art
selected me and purchased my art work. I have thought of all the possible
reasons or whys that she may have done it, and then developed what that
inspiration gave to me, to be able to continue my Art. What's important is
how that purchase developed our relationship for the future years. . .
Further, is this story also a small part of her myth? Perhaps, yes. But,
weren't my ideas relevant to her issues when we talked about Art? How did
I help her? How did we help each other? What do you suppose sustained our
eight year relationship? We were two artists drawn together by a strong love
of working as artists, she often the listener and not infrequently a mentor.
I was an open book, fresh out of graduate school -- did Picasso go to
Let's say from her standpoint perhaps the interest in the relationship and
what continued the exchange of ideas suspended over a long distance in
letters between visits was something else.
Here is what I believe were the reasons underpinning her relationship to me,
in viewing the range of reasons O'Keeffe might have had. I draw an inference
that my art was supported when Georgia O'Keeffe was gradually realizing:
1) that because of her failing eyesight, she needed some help interpreting
the visual world and in transforming her experience into finished works of
Or, let's consider another version: I reminded her of herself in earlier
days as an idealistic, committed young woman artist. I thought that this
might be the answer when she showed me a picture of herself and, it suddenly
brought her back to a remembrance of her younger years when her work was not
yet recognized. It was at a time when she had to scramble for any support
in order to rise upward and to avoid being rebuffed by people that didn't
understand her Art. She told me that.
2) my abstractions from raw materials and how I transformed them into
layered shell formations were something new. However, the concept of form
was far more attuned and essential to our conversations;
3) she was not going to be a Rodin and that something tactile from my
influence upon her art, could give her a transition for her older age to
enable her to work and sculpt, "feeling the clay," rather than seeing high
above the world.
When O'Keeffe was young she worked so hard without financial compensation
and it was a time when women artists were belittled. She was remembering a
period in her life where she thought -- "I wouldn't want to have to go
through that again. And here's somebody" -- referring to me -- "I may be
able to help her."
Even with all her celebrity she was curious to look at my work including my
early drawings. Her spirits rose and she said, "I wish I could have done
that myself." And I still soar with the memory of those words today.
In 1937 before I was born, O'Keeffe had painted pseudo-pebbles, or, objects
symbolic of something else and... Suddenly the mental image of her earlier
work was rekindled by my art:
[From my Journal, 1971] "It may be about my idealism and aesthetic theories I have and O'Keeffe's
reawakening of some of her coming up through it and seeing another young
woman's art developing, and she catches the eye and it brings up memories
for her. And sitting down and doing what she could do. I mean that rock
doesn't take a great deal of motor skills -- imagination yes, but motor
skills, no. It's not like flowers, a stamen over here and a pistil over
there, and some leaves, and some of this and a couple of petals and all this
flourish, multiple colors. That's a rock, that looks like a clam, but a
rock has the shadings, yet it doesn't have a lot of intricate painting. It
may have a lot of creativity but it isn't. Well, the point is taken well,
it's so simple, it's form and nothing else. . ."
Perhaps she wanted me to explain her black rock for you, the public. She
goes back to something that was within her ability to handle. How she needed
to revert to an object that she could handle. She could fondle the rocks.
There's a wonderful story of a man who is searching for the Fountain of
Youth. He finds it in Florida. He learns at 77 he's going to die. In the
few remaining years he lives his life backwards. Until finally, as an
infant, he falls into the fountain of youth and drowns.
This is beautiful. In those years he didn't add to his lifetime, he just
travels backwards. And this is what happened to O'Keeffe. She couldn't
continue to create the kinds of things that she once did and began to
regress. The trigger was the pebbles. They got her to where she had the
confidence to go and do the things she could. Looking at the sculptured
paintings she said to herself, "I don't think I could handle that
physically, I'm not Rodin, but I sure can take that art form and I can
encompass it, and go on. " She did just that with much help from her
What a unique relationship we had; her astute intelligence knowing when and
how to encourage and keep alive the sparks of my love for art (and the
practical monetary ways she helped support me). and I -- through the many
round forms found in nature -- that I studied and loved -- I was able to
bring to her, through these shapes, ideas that ultimately would rekindle her
love of sculpture and would result in her painting, Black Rock on Blue, III
which she exhibited in a major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of
American Art in 1970.
As she was an aide to me, I was an aide to her; my young, untired eyes
helping her appreciate again forms in nature that had captivated her in the
earlier part of her career.
Text written by Mym Tuma, Southampton, NY 11969
All Rights Reserved © Bernard Gotfryd of East Hampton (O'Keeffe, 1970)
Text & Images © 2004-2010, All Rights Reserved