Books by John D. Poling

Released: Sept. 1, 1999

A small, disturbing snapshot of a book about Georgia O'Keeffe, written by a man who worked as her studio assistant for two summers and helped her complete several paintings. Poling (who now teaches philosophy and theology at St. Olaf's College) first met the elderly O'Keeffe when her driver stopped to give him a lift to the grocery store in Abiquiu, N.M. Months later, O'Keeffe's personal secretary hired him to house-sit for her and repaint her window trim. Both the chance meeting and the job at O'Keeffe's compound seemed wildly fortuitous: that summer of 1976, Poling gradually stopped painting trim on the artist's house and began painting her canvases. The two of them spent some months working together: O'Keeffe directing and instructing, Poling immersing himself in her art. The association, however, was to be short-lived, since O'Keeffe's assistant, Juan Hamilton, became extremely jealous of their association. Poling left, but he could not walk away; nor, it seems, could he forgive the fact that O'Keeffe chose not to divulge the extent of their collaboration. "I felt with despair that my attempts to have the facts acknowledged had never had a chance," he writes. For her part, O'Keeffe staunchly defended her right to ignore him: "Mr. Poling was the equivalent of a palette knife," she told a reporter at the time. "He was nothing but a tool." Her proud dismissal so hurt Poling he became somewhat obsessed with documenting and proving his participation in her work. This book could itself be seen as a final, wistful effort to assert his involvement. And as much as it may be appropriate to clarify their work collaboration, Poling's vehemence—after all these years—verges on the bizarre. O'Keeffe certainly could be cruel, but it would take much more objectivity and detachment than Poling musters here to understand why the artist spurned him so thoroughly. Although Poling provides an unusually intimate glimpse of O'Keeffe at work, his book is less about her than it is about him and how betrayed he felt when she refused to acknowledge his assistance. (11 b&w photos, not seen) Read full book review >