Now in her 93rd year, Georgia O'Keeffe, the New Mexico artist renowned for her paintings of skulls, flowers and soft, folding, red mountains, has courageously continued to paint despite the almost-insurmountable obstacle of failing eyesight.
For some of the works she has done since blindness approached, she has used an assistant to help execute her creative concepts, following a practice that has been accepted for centuries. But her reluctance to publicly acknowledge that assistance has now created a situation that pits the views of the feisty nonagenarian against those of some of the most prominent members of the art world.
This month, the issue of public acknowledgment is being raised for the first time. It comes through the disclosure by a young Abiquiú resident that in 1976, while he was employed to paint the trim on O'Keeffe's summer house at Ghost Ranch near Abiquiú, he painted three canvases, including one that has appeared in a national magazine, and one reportedly was shown in a traveling museum exhibit. The man, John Poling, said he made the disclosure only after failing in attempts to persuade O'Keeffe to tell the story herself.
O'Keeffe said in an interview last week that she does not plan to acknowledge publicly that some of her paintings, though her own ideas, have been painted by the hands of others.
"I don't think it's anyone's business," the proud, alert woman said in the interview at Ghost Ranch. She said that none of the three paintings on which Poling worked had been sold or were on the market.
But experts in the art field said last week that they regretted her reluctance to acknowledge the collaboration to the public. Most said they thought such acknowledgement would not hurt her worldwide reputation, but that its lack could make a difference of thousands of dollars if the paintings are offered for sale…
Poling said, "O'Keeffe would sometimes sit close to the canvas but at other times would stand at the back of the room and study the canvas through a pair of binoculars. "Her vision was sort of blurring all over, but there were little holes in it where she could see through," he recalled…
Dressed in a blue cotton dress and a black smock, O'Keeffe sat against the wall of her study...When asked aboutPoling, however, her words turned spare and bitter...
"Mr. Poling was the equivalent of a palette knife," she said…"He wants to make himself important at my expense."
This year marks SFR’s 40th anniversary. Celebrate with us by reading excerpts of stories that have graced our pages through the years. Georgia O’Keeffe died in 1984, about 12 years after she completed her last unassisted oil painting. A chronology published by the O’Keeffe Museum says her last unassisted watercolor came in 1977.