A $13 Million Lawsuit Over Georgia O'Keeffe Highlights a Portrait of the Artist's Young Man
Out of that inauspicious beginning was born a strange friendship—the odd coupling of a 91-year-old pioneer of American painting and a skilled potter almost six decades her junior. Though they have never lived together, there is speculation they may be married. O'Keeffe and Hamilton, 33, have tried to guard their privacy with a stone wall of silence. That has become difficult now as they become more deeply embroiled in messy litigation involving Doris Bry, O'Keeffe's former agent. In 1977 O'Keeffe terminated their contract and sued, successfully, to recover her photographs and paintings from Bry. Bry, in turn, charged Hamilton with "malicious interference" in her dealings with O'Keeffe and asked for more than $13 million in damages, On advice of counsel, Bry will not talk about the case. Nor will O'Keeffe. Hamilton, however, has abandoned such compunctions. "I have nothing to hide," he says. "There is prejudice against us because she is an older woman and I'm young and somewhat handsome."
As Hamilton tells it, he came to Abiquiu on the run from his past. He was born in Dallas three days before Christmas. "The nurses in the hospital all wanted to be out shopping," he says. "They gave my mother a hard time. I always associate that beginning with my rough life." The son of a bilingual educational consultant, he spent his boyhood in South America. Returning to the U.S. at 15, he went on to earn an art degree, in 1968, at Hastings College in Nebraska. A conscientious objector during the Vietnam war years, he drifted into graduate school in California, married a fellow student and dropped out to sculpt full time. When his marriage foundered after two years, he headed for New Mexico in 1972. Eight months later, he knocked on O'Keeffe's door in hopes of landing a job. "I was a broken man when I came to her," Juan says. "She said I reminded her of a wilted leaf. I was embarrassed to be asking for work, and I expected her to say no." She did at first, but as he dejectedly walked away, she stopped him. "Here was this tall, young man with long hair down his back," she recalled later. "He said he'd had two years of graduate school, and I said, 'Can you type?' "
Fortunately for Hamilton, their needs meshed in other ways as well. O'Keeffe's eyesight was failing, and her secretary had recently resigned. Juan began by pruning hedges and chauffeuring guests to the airport but soon found himself playing majordomo, screening mail and telephone calls and helping to manage her complicated affairs. "Life is difficult when you become old," he explains. "It's nice to have someone who cares. It's no fun being alone."
In time Hamilton felt financially and psychologically secure enough to buy a modest adobe cottage three miles away and turn it into an exquisitely crafted retreat topped by a skylit studio. His relationship with O'Keeffe took an important turn when she asked him to supervise the production of a book of her works. It was published, to critical acclaim, in 1976. Their friendship was sealed. "People predicted the book would be doomed because I didn't have any experience," he recalls, "but she believed in me. She believed I could be her eyes." By the time O'Keeffe decided to fire Bry, Juan was ready to take over. He sold an occasional painting and had a major role in planning an exhibit of photographs by Alfred Stieglitz, her late husband, in New York. He traveled with O'Keeffe wherever she went.
A mutual dependence became apparent. "Well," O'Keeffe told Hamilton one day, "if you're going to stay around here, you'd better get to work." She asked him to instruct her in pottery, bought him a kiln and gave him the time, money and encouragement he needed to use it. Last November he had his first one-man sculpture show at a Fifth Avenue gallery. His work sold very well and the Metropolitan Museum bought two of his pieces. "Miss O'Keeffe," Juan says gratefully, "encouraged me to continue rather than give up."
Mutual friends offer a variety of pop-psychological explanations for the Hamilton-O'Keeffe symbiosis. One is that the very contentiousness of their friendship fulfills a mutual need; another, that he is the son she never had; a third, that both of them are too troublesome to be tolerated by anyone else. Hamilton's rationale is persuasively simple. "We have common interests," he says. "We enjoy each other's company. We laugh a lot. We work well together. If you're an artist, you need another artist who understands that you must continue to find a way to express yourself." Even the naysayers agree that Hamilton has filled that role for O'Keeffe. "She genuinely gets a kick out of him," says one. "He came to her when she needed an infusion. He encouraged her to paint." (As for the rumors that he and Georgia are married, Juan denies them, adding, "That's not to say the relationship isn't as meaningful as a marriage. Why do we need to spoil a good friendship?")
And so their life in the desert goes on. She is experimenting with water-colors now, despite her partial blindness, and he is planning a retrospective of her work for London and Paris in 1980. Hamilton will mount a show of his own in Houston—possibly this year—and often goes to his studio in the dead of night to work. "It's so quiet," he says, "that I have the feeling all other human beings are asleep and not putting any vibrations out." If their remote life in the desert and the notoriety of their liaison sometimes disturb him, he plainly believes the trade-off is worthwhile. "It's lonely here," he says, "but the isolation is positive artistically. Probably the most important thing Miss O'Keeffe taught me is not to be concerned with things like happiness—just to know yourself what you're able to do and then do it. I could never leave here."