Susan York sculpted carbon from dust and channeled the essence of Georgia O’Keeffe.
The Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is exploring that connection by pairing the two artists throughout its galleries through April 17.
“Carbon” showcases, then blurs the distinctions between York’s two- and-three-dimensional graphite installations with O’Keeffe’s paintings and drawings.
The Albuquerque-raised York is a minimalist sculptor and installation artist now based in Santa Fe. She teaches installation art and ceramics at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. The exhibition marks her O’Keeffe Museum debut.
“A lot of the work relates to architecture,” York said. “They aren’t exactly square because I want there to be this tension that is felt but not seen.”
O’Keeffe’s 1915 charcoal drawings crowned her one of the very first American artists to practice pure abstraction. Always grounded in nature, she pared her imagery down to its most essential shapes and forms.
“And graphite is the common ground for that,” curator Carolyn Kastner said.
York shapes her solid, highly polished geometrical sculptures using between 300 and 1,000 pounds of graphite – pure carbon. She mixes the powder with a coal product, heats it and it alchemizes. She sculpts her pieces slightly off-center, while their glassy surfaces gleam in a hybrid of asymmetry and perfection.
“One thing we share is a distillation of form, that is our common ground,” York said. “When Carolyn put them together, she made a thread between our sensibilities.”
Years of experimentation led to York’s success in casting graphite. She spends hours and days layering, rubbing and polishing the surfaces. The artist looks for shapes that are slightly skewed but symmetrical.
The results are the pencil leads that artists use to plan or make their art, blown up to become the art itself in six-foot black beams. Her central column weighs more than 1,000 pounds; it seems suspended, mid-gallery.
Although she has never cited O’Keeffe as an influence, at the gallery opening, people kept asking York if she had painted the artist’s “My Last Door,” with its central black square dominating the canvas.
The late Agnes Martin was York’s mentor. Martin was an abstractionist who was often called a minimalist, a term she disavowed. The young artist wrote to Martin, sending her a postcard of her latest work. The often reclusive painter invited York to her Galisteo home.
“She said, ‘I won’t know if you’re ready to be internationally known until I see your work. And come for tea,'” York said.
York met with Martin over tea or dinner nearly every month for the next several years. Through Martin, she learned about the artist’s life long before she found her own.
Martin told her never to get married or have children. At the time, York was living in a Zen center.
“And I broke that rule,” York said, laughing. She is married with one daughter.
“Her work came first,” she continued. “I think she felt it would be a distraction.
“At one point, I tried to quit because it was so hard,” York said. “New Mexico is a big influence. I’m trying to reveal this surface of no forms, the expansiveness. There’s hardly any water, there’s hardly any trees, the sky is big. I think that gets into the center of what drives me – how do I reveal that?”
York wrote to O’Keeffe when she was a teenager, thinking she had spotted the great artist leading a group on the Plaza in Santa Fe.
“There were so few women artists,” she said.
O’Keeffe replied on United Nations stationery imprinted with one of her paintings.
“She said, ‘It was not I on the Plaza, GOK.'”
York stuck the note in a violin case.