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Portrait of the Artist and the Young Man : Why a Once-Impoverished Potter Is Giving Up Georgia O'Keeffe Inheritance

July 23, 1987|DAVID JOHNSTON | Times Staff Writer

ABIQUIU, N. M. — Fifteen years ago, an impoverished potter named Juan Hamilton wangled three introductions to artist Georgia O'Keeffe, the only woman of independent means in this strangely verdant desert settlement beside a trickle called the Rio Chama.

The first time, Hamilton tagged along with a friend visiting O'Keeffe's home. It so annoyed the 84-year-old doyenne of modern American art, he remembers, that she looked right through him during the entire visit.

Another friend let the pony-tailed Hamilton, then 26, help install a wood-burning stove at O'Keeffe's house. Hamilton's mistake, he recalls, was to say that he owned a similar antique. "This isn't an antique," O'Keeffe coldly replied.

Finally, two more friends advised Hamilton to knock on O'Keeffe's kitchen door and ask for work. Again, he was dismissed. But as he walked away, the artist called after him. Could he build a crate?, she asked.

Hamilton did and when O'Keeffe, who had just lost her secretary, learned that he could also type, he got the job. So began a friendship between a conscientious objector from the Vietnam War and an artist more than half a century his senior; they traveled the world together, the closest of friends.

Sixteen months ago, on March 6, 1986, O'Keeffe died at age 98.

She bequeathed to Hamilton about 70% of an estate that includes $65 million worth of art, thousands of valuable photo negatives from her late husband, Alfred Stieglitz, three large homes plus bank and brokerage accounts reported to be worth more than a million dollars.

But on Saturday, the once-impoverished potter, now 41, intends to walk into a courtroom in the ancient city of Santa Fe and relinquish his rights to most of that fortune.

What would prompt a man to sign away most of $50 million?

Hamilton, who now lives in O'Keeffe's three homes and oversees her fortune, has worked hard to keep his answers to that question private. He has required household staff, lawyers and even government officials to sign secrecy agreements as a condition of employment or settling disputes.

But, in his own words and those of knowledgeable sources, John Bruce Hamilton's reasons now emerge--as subtle and as complex as an O'Keeffe flower. Behind them lies a tale of friendship, money and power, framed by a document's critical signature that wanders like stairs built by a drunken carpenter and a wedding that never was.

O'Keeffe always did as she chose.

In the early 20th Century, her painting style was so far outside the mainstream that it took Alfred Stieglitz to recognize her genius and expose her to America. It was his Manhattan 291 gallery that exposed Americans to Rodin, Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso.

Nearly four decades before Hefner got girls next door to strip, O'Keeffe posed for hundreds of Stieglitz photographs so erotic that they once moved even the staid New Yorker magazine to rhapsodic commentary.

O'Keeffe married Stieglitz in 1924, when she was 36 and he was 60, and moved freely through his heady world during their 22 years together, which ended with Steiglitz' death in 1946. But she always came to the desert to be alone.

She painted sun-bleached cattle skulls hauntingly suspended beside blossoms in the azure sky and tried, again and again, to express on canvas the emotions oddly engaged by a simple wood gate in the adobe wall of her Abiqui compound.

She put her brushes down only after a burst artery destroyed her central vision in 1971. The following year, when Hamilton entered her life, she saw him only as if through gauze.

Young Hamilton learned quickly just how to please the artist, by now a revered elder in the art world. After observing O'Keeffe's cook and companion of 13 years, Jerrie Newsom, cutting her meat, Hamilton took over the chore. When O'Keeffe needled Hamilton, he needled back.

"Part of what she liked about me . . . was that I didn't put her on a pedestal," Hamilton said over iced tea on a Santa Fe restaurant veranda.

Soon after his arrival, major changes began occurring, according to friends and others as well as Hamilton himself. O'Keeffe began changing cooks, lawyers, doctors, art dealers and in some cases friends.

Newsom, the cook who now volunteers at a New Mexico nursing home, said O'Keeffe "wanted me to wait on him and" tidy up Hamilton's room with its "carpet of beer cans." She left.

Then in 1977, Doris Bry, who for years had been O'Keeffe's Manhattan dealer and so trusted a friend that she was the executor of O'Keeffe's estate, was terminated as her dealer. O'Keeffe immediately sued to recover paintings and cash Bry held. Bry in turn sued Hamilton, charging "malicious interference" and claiming that O'Keeffe "because of her poor vision and advanced age, came under Hamilton's influence and control."

In 1982 and 1985 the cases were settled out of court. The settlement terms were secret.

Hamilton's influence, and affluence, grew steadily as he assumed more duties, including screening O'Keeffe's calls and letters.

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