Inside Georgia O’Keeffe and Agnes Martin’s Unexpected Friendship
In the late 1960s, Minimalist painter Agnes Martin built herself a tiny adobe home on a remote New Mexican mesa. Like her paintings, the residence was pared down and luminously sparse. Martin did, however, allow herself a single piece of ornamentation: a poster depicting a painting by fellow artist Georgia O’Keeffe.
The poster points to Martin’s admiration for the already-famous artist, who was nearly 25 years her senior, and hints at a deeper relationship between the two—one of friendship, encouragement, and shared dreams.
By Martin’s account, the painters first crossed paths in the early 1940s in New York. Martin was studying at the Teachers College of Columbia University, where she’d surely have been aware of O’Keeffe’s canvases that blended landscape, still-life, and abstraction. O’Keeffe had two solo exhibitions at Alfred Stieglitz’s Manhattan gallery, An American Place, between ’41 and ’42 and was a well-known entity among artists—especially female painters seeking role models for navigating the deeply sexist, male-dominated art establishment. As scholar Henry Martin (no relation) pointed out in his 2018 book, Agnes Martin: Pioneer, Painter, Icon, “it was unavoidable that Agnes would be attracted to Georgia as America’s preeminent female painter.”
It wasn’t until 1946, after Martin relocated from New York to New Mexico (with many stops in between), that the two painters had their first significant interactions. O’Keeffe had already been spending long swaths of time in the state at her desert haven, Ghost Ranch, when Martin landed in the area for her first 10-year stay. It was during this stint in Albuquerque that Martin paid visits to O’Keeffe at her newly acquired home in Abiquiú, a pilgrimage that took around two hours.
By the 1940s, Martin was already prone to reclusivity, which became more acute over time. But she also “had an uncanny ability to befriend people of every kind,” as art historian Nancy Princethanal explained in her 2015 biography, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art. This affability extended somewhat boldly to people of more renown and clout than the upstart artist and included, in O’Keeffe, at least one of her heroes.
Except for Martin’s writings, little documentation of their meetings exists or has been preserved. Still, we know that O’Keeffe had a profound influence on the young painter during her first stay in New Mexico. O’Keeffe encouraged Martin’s development towards her mature style in a period when she moved “decisively towards abstraction,” according to Princenthal. The elder artist’s impact extended even after Martin returned to New York in 1957.
Beyond their devotion to painting, O’Keeffe and Martin might have also gotten along, as Henry Martin has suggested, thanks to additional parallels in their lives. Both artists grew up on rural farms (O’Keeffe in Wisconsin, Martin in Saskatchewan); taught high school; ended up at Columbia Teachers College; and were drawn, again and again, to the New Mexico desert until each made it her home. They shared a tendency to buck limiting gender conventions, too.
Travel stimulated them both as well. On at least one occasion the two painters dreamed of taking an around-the-world trip together by freighter. They even began plotting it but the adventure never transpired. One stark difference between O’Keeffe’s and Martin’s temperaments might have caused the dissolution of this plan. O’Keeffe contained boundless energy, as Martin recalled, while she felt quickly depleted. Later, Martin admitted, “I don’t know how I ever would have sailed around the world with her. I would’ve been asleep.”
More generally, of her visits with O’Keeffe, Martin chronicled her elder’s unflagging enthusiasm with a mix of admiration and total fatigue. “Georgia was like that—very intense and exciting to be with, but she drained me,” she said. “When I left the room for a few minutes, I just had to lie down, right then and there.” She remembered another instance with laughter: “I found her overstimulating…When we left [O’Keeffe’s house], we went to Santa Fe and we went in the first bar we could find and we just drank. Glass after glass of beer. To recover.”
Despite their differences, all of Martin’s memories of O’Keeffe seem fond, even reverent. But at least one hints at what was perhaps Martin’s dissatisfaction with their relationship. In a 1995 interview, art critic Joan Simon asked Martin if she knew O’Keeffe. Martin responded succinctly: “I knew her in the ’40s when I was a student. But she forgot me when she got old.” Even so, her statement ended with laughter.
The two might have seen each other less as O’Keeffe aged, but their friendship embodies the importance of mentorship and support between female artists in the male-dominated art world—whether in the 1940s or today.