When Georgia Met Sandro

Embers of a fabled friendship shimmer on.

Georgia O’Keeffe with cat, New Mexico, circa 1935. Photograph by John Candelario. Courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives (NMHM/DCA), Neg. No. 165660.
BY KATE NELSON

In the Museum of International Folk Art, curator Laura Addison opens a nondescript flat file among aisles of others in the collections vault. From it, she pulls a delicately rendered water­color by one of the most remarkable artists of the twentieth century. It shows a columbine flower—not in the abstracted style that brought Georgia O’Keeffe fame, but as a wildflower-identification guide.

O’Keeffe made the painting in around 1950, along with one other and a drawing that Addison holds in her gloved hands. It was created for Alexander Girard’s “Italian Villa” vignette, now in the museum’s permanent exhibition, Multiple Visions: A Common Bond. The other painting similarly depicts realistic honeysuckle, lily-of-the-valley, and forget-me-not blossoms. The pencil drawing of bleeding hearts leans into the modernist interpretations of both O’Keeffe and Girard. These small papers stand as rare physical examples of that point where the visionaries’  artistic endeavors crossed into each other’s worlds. We know they were friends—O’Keeffe, Girard, and his wife, Susan. They held dinner parties, took international trips, and stayed at each other’s homes. Marshall Girard recalls, “I remember showing up at her house on many occasions, getting a glass of water, then being sent out into the garden to pull weeds. I was allowed to eat anything I wanted in the way of the vegetables she was growing.”

Tracing the tendrils of their friendship will take me from the museum’s collections vault to its upstairs library, into the Multiple Visions gallery, over to the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum’s archives, to lunch at the Compound Restaurant, into the memory banks of various curators, and even, digitally, to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale University. There, I scrutinize letters and photographs uncovered by Jochen Eisenbrand, chief curator of Germany’s Vitra Design Museum and the wrangler behind the traveling exhibition Alexander Girard: A Designer’s Universe


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That exhibition, which opened at the Museum of International Folk Art on May 5 and runs through October 27, conjures the creative swirl within which Girard built his reputation as an icon of interior and textile design, a peer and friend of Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Andy Warhol, Rudi Gernreich, and O’Keeffe. “Charles and Ray Eames and Georgia were among the most frequent to be at our house,” Marshall says. “We had a guestroom where they could sleep, and Georgia did stay sometimes, though not as frequently, as she could just return home.”

The Vitra exhibition’s arrival in Santa Fe brings a bounty of Girard’s fabrics, furniture, posters, and design plans. Visitors who dive in will surely deepen their grasp of a man best known here for his collection of folk art, 100,000 pieces of which are held by the museum, a mere tenth of which fit into the sprawling Multiple Visions

My dear Alexander: Please—before you go on with plans for your Peru etc. trip—go and have your head examined. Don’t laugh and not do it—because if your heart is not good, you may not be able to take those quick changes in altitude safely. I found it harder to go up than to go down. My heart is good and I was not sick but it’s hard to walk as much. It will be hard but it will be wonderful. My best to all of you always—G.

Written in O’Keeffe’s visually appealing but notoriously difficult handwriting, the August 1968 warning, which chides Girard for his lack of caution about his heart condition, likely did little to dissuade Girard’s travel plans. Global journeys fed his appetite for the handmade works of local artisans and inspired the bright colors and whimsical designs that defined his best work, still in evidence at the venerable Compound, Santa Fe’s restaurant on Canyon Road that Girard designed in 1966. More than a half-century later, the multi­lingual “love” plaque near the entrance in­spires selfies by anniversary-celebrating couples. A new generation of diners may hear a call for equality in the inset rainbow. The groovy waves of the ceiling he formed by plastering over vigas seem as fresh as a Meow Wolf installation.

The restaurant was, purportedly, a favorite of O’Keeffe’s. The staff holds onto that and other beliefs—even if, dining room manager David Castor says, they’re all hard to prove. One says that O’Keeffe and Girard met on the site, back in the 1930s and 1940s, when it was a true artistic compound. Certainly, O’Keeffe began visiting New Mexico in 1929, but Girard didn’t move from Michigan to Santa Fe until 1953. Letters held at the Beinecke start in 1957, and by then, they are clearly friends. As O’Keeffe writes in a rare typed letter of April 18, 1958:

Dear Girards—Have you survived the long winter? We have, but the house has not been so fortunate. There seems to be mud everywhere but on the walls. I am back again, and we thought you might enjoy coming soon. The ground is still quite wet underfoot for walking, but a few more days of sun, and that should be gone too. Let us know when you can come. Look forward to seeing you.

The O’Keeffe Museum’s three correspondence files containing Alexander and Susan’s letters to O’Keeffe begin in 1960. The Museum of International Folk Art holds 131 of Girard’s 189 file boxes, each spine decorated with his “facets” design and a Girard Foundation sticker. They’re organized by topic, ranging from “Banks” to “Thailand,” but box 177, “USA—Georgia O’Keeffe,” is the only one dedicated to a person. In it, Girard tucked a few letters and postcards from O’Keeffe, photo­graphs of her, programs from his and her exhibitions, proposals for turning her Abiquiu home into a national historic site, press clippings about her, and a scrap of paper dated September 16, 1981, with this unsigned phrase written by hand: “Big world full of wonderful little things.”

Addison wonders whether that was something O’Keeffe might have said while visiting Multiple Visions before it opened in 1982. The O’Keeffe letters reveal Girard all but begging O’Keeffe to come to its opening. By then, her health was failing; she died in 1986.

The HemisFair ’68 expo in San Antonio, Texas included a Girard exhibition, El Encanto de un Pueblo, that served as a model for what would eventually become Multiple Visions. Its series of similar vignettes included pieces of his folk art collection. 

A Girard letter at the O’Keeffe Museum reads, “Are you still interested in designing some houses for the cowboy scene? Would love to have something of yours in the show.” Her response, if any, is unknown, but Girard’s program for the show includes a credit line, thanking O’Keeffe for loaning rocks to the exhibit. Meager as that loan may sound, remember that O’Keeffe took her rocks seriously. To this day, the O’Keeffe Museum, which oversees her home, has collection numbers painted on the underside of each one.

O’Keeffe attended the San Antonio opening, and a photograph of Girard walking down a street with her shows O’Keeffe in a conservative dark suit that leaves her resembling something between a nun and a Soviet bureaucrat; Girard wears a lighter-colored business suit and carries a curiously large and bulging envelope. Other photos show the two mid-laughter and, my favorite, seated at adjacent tables, with O’Keeffe twisting around in her seat to chat with him.

Girard regularly sent her fabric samples from around the world, along with promises to order for her whichever ones she chose. “More important,” he adds to one, “when do we see you again very soon?” To this day, one of Girard’s pillows bedecks O’Keeffe’s home. One side shows a snake, which Director of Historic Properties Agapita Lopez likes best. Unfortunately for her, most of the docents turn it around to the more popular “Love” side. 

They lived just sixty miles (along a slow, two-lane road) apart, and regularly invited each other to dinner, and on trips to Houston, Tucson, Mexico, and Morocco. “Did you receive the panettone?” Alexander, who signs his missives “Sandro,” asks O’Keeffe. “Sandro thought you were wonderful to take time to send him goodies from Japan,” Susan writes, “but, of course, he will want to tell you all that himself!”

Marshall remembers one time in particular when they went to see a big celebration of some kind in Chihuahua City in Mexico. “I can remember getting my hands on a big bag of palomitas, small firecrackers similar to M80s. When we got to the border, my mother was getting really worried, as they were illegal in the States. I was getting upset, and Georgia just decided she was going to put them in her purse and walk right through. The guard asked to see her immunization record, and as she was fumbling around trying to get it from her purse, she dropped it and the palomitas went everywhere. The whole place seemed to just freeze. All the guards were staring at us. Georgia didn’t skip a beat. She bent down, gathered everything back into her purse, and kept walking. It was amazing!”

Alexander writes to her of his wish to surprise Susan with a Christmas present of an O’Keeffe painting, “should you be interested in producing a ‘little one’ for us.” Later, Susan sends O’Keeffe a mock “emergency bulletin”:

GEORGIA! Please don’t give Hirshhorn [Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution] every picture.We would like very much to have one of your paintings. However, this horrendous idea has just entered my brain that unless we do something right now they will all be in Hirshhorn’s hands. … As you know I am crazy about Black Abstraction, but that may be beyond our means.

It’s likely that Susan was referring to O’Keeffe’s 1927 Black Abstraction, which is beyond all our means now, held by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I really felt very badly as we drove down the road last night. I was so sorry that you had done extra things for the night—thinking we would stay. You never should do extra things for us. … I did not care about going to the opera though much to my surprise I enjoyed it. I only thought that it would be very nice to spend the evening with the two of you and I enjoyed it very much. … It was also that I do not like to leave the house with no one here, particularly so near the holiday time, when more strangers are apt to be here. I am so sorry to have been a trouble to you—when I had such a pleasant time. My love to you both and thank you for being as you are. Sincerely, Georgia

This July 1958 apology, part of the Beinecke letters, reveals that O’Keeffe knew her desire for solitude could be off-putting. It also hints at the intrusions her growing fame had placed on life in Abiquiu. She continued, however, to create space not only for the Girards, but also for their children, Marshall and Sansi, even taking Marshall with her on a river trip and advising Sansi on healthy living—though her prescriptions sometimes met with mixed reviews. “I am trying to find something that will camouflage the taste of Brewer’s Yeast,” Sansi writes to O’Keeffe, “even dissolving it in Coca-Cola.”

As the years passed, varieties of health ailments cropped up in all their letters. They complain about back pain,  diarrhea in Mexico, shingles, and, as O’Keeffe writes, “leprosy or something else horrid.” Alexander directs her to eye specialists in New York and California as her sight begins to fail. Eventually, the Girards’ letters become panicked. “Georgia, Georgia—How are you? We are alarmed!” Susan writes, while referencing a “second bump” being removed from O’Keeffe.

Among the last letters in the O’Keeffe’s collection, Alexander writes after the 1982 opening of Multiple Visions: “We so missed you … didn’t seem right without you there!” A short while later, Susan writes that O’Keeffe’s phone seems to have been disconnected: “Is everything all right with you? Can’t reach you by phone. … Please get in touch with us. We are curious and worried.”

They were still sharing ideas and adventures, but mostly looking out for one another—especially for the one so adamant about her independence. (Alexander died in 1993; Susan in 1996.) 

“I think what probably brought them together was their common interest in modernism and the love for the landscape and traditional architecture of New Mexico,” says Eisenbrand, “and that they both preferred living not in the busy urban centers but in this seeming periphery.”

“It was a sense of simpatico, an affinity,” Addison says. 

The friendship endures in their words. It echoes amid the canyons of Abiquiu and in the crannies of Multiple Visions.

“You should be with us,” Susan scrawls on the back of a postcard from Lagos, Nigeria.

O’Keeffe: “My love to you both, as always.”   

Kate Nelson is managing editor of New Mexico Magazine. She still writes letters to friends. Her handwriting is atrocious.