In 2013, I was living in Santa Fe, when I met Juan Hamilton, Georgia O’Keeffe’s assistant and long-time companion. I was introduced to Juan through the private dealer Spencer Tomkins, son of Calvin Tomkins, who knew him through his Dad’s profile of O’Keeffe in The New Yorker. Before agreeing to have lunch, Juan laid down the ground rules; “I won’t talk about O’Keeffe.”
We met at a local favorite called the Tune-Up Café. Juan pulled up in a black Mercedes SUV. Although he was older, he still maintained the same ruggedly handsome features that attracted O’Keeffe. After ordering bowls of green chile, I steered the conversation to Hamilton and his own work as a ceramic artist. But it turned out he didn’t want to talk about himself; he wanted to talk about O’Keeffe! Juan immediately voiced a current gripe about an exhibition at the town’s Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. It should be pointed out that Hamilton settled a tax issue, surrounding his inheritance from O’Keeffe, by donating a number of important paintings to the museum. But that day, Juan said sarcastically, “Can you imagine, the museum has a show up right now that they’re calling, ‘O’Keeffe and Nature’ — what a revelation.”
During the course of our meal, I handed him a copy of my book, I Sold Andy Warhol (too soon). Juan gazed at the pink cover and laughed wryly, “Sounds like something I once did.” He was referring to a 40” x 40” portrait of Georgia by Andy Warhol that he once owned — and sold before Warhol’s prices went into the stratosphere.
Lunch with Juan Hamilton proved to be the catalyst for my developing interest in Georgia O’Keeffe’s work. Not long after, I spent a fair amount of time at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and the artist’s two homes; Ghost Ranch and Abiquiu. I read all I could on her work including Roxana Robinson’s excellent biography, Georgia O’Keeffe. I also participated with Ms. Robinson at the Lexington Public Library’s annual Night of Literary Feasts, and learned about her experiences researching her famous subject. As I began building my knowledge of “everything” O’Keeffe, I continued to see as many major pictures as possible, including those at the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once you see a painting like Ram’s Head, White Hollyhock-Hills (Brooklyn Museum), you never forget it.
The real breakthrough in understanding O’Keeffe’s imagery, and working methods, occurred during a conversation with Gerald Peters. Mr. Peters was instrumental in promoting O’Keeffe’s work and raising her profile in the art market. But his stint as her representative was not without controversy. Mr. Peters once bought and sold the infamous “Canyon Suite,” a group of twenty-eight early watercolors. In a much-publicized event, the Kemper Museum in Kansas City, Missouri acquired them from Peters. But six years later, the National Gallery of Art disputed their authenticity, resulting in Peters having to take them back from the Kemper.
Authenticating the work of Georgia O’Keeffe
Richard Polsky Art Authentication’s willingness to get involved in authenticating Georgia O’Keeffe’s work is based on our knowledge of her paintings and over forty-years of experience in the art world. Given the complexities of O’Keeffe’s art, the key to authenticating it is our willingness to collaborate with colleagues, in order to provide our clients with accurate information. While O’Keeffe’s unique ability to distill nature to its essence looks disarmingly simple, the task of determining authenticity is highly complex.