Head in the Clouds

“. . . and the SKY – Anita you have never seen SKY – it is wonderful . . .”

-Georgia O’Keeffe in a letter to Anita Pollitzer, September 11, 1916

With all of this rain lately, the clouds have been mesmerizing. There are days at the Ranch when rain pours down by the distant Pedernal and looks like wispy ends of a torn cotton ball or streaks of paint. Bits of blue poke through the clouds to create polka-dot patterns of color. You can smell the dirt and feel the freshness of the air. The moisture breathes life into the present-day landscapes of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings.

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But some days this moisture also threatens the landscape. On a recent visit to the Ranch after much flooding and devastation to some of the Retreat Center buildings, we kept a closer eye on the weather than usual. We were cataloging into the early afternoon and noticed a large black cloud rolling in over the land. My supervisor and I went outside to gauge how much time we had before it moved over us. Deciding it was better to be safe than sorry, we packed up our work, loaded the car, locked the gate, and hit the road. In the fifteen minute drive from the back dirt-roads to the Ranch entrance and paved highway, the clouds had covered our tracks with a black sheet of rain and menacing darkness. We drove back to Santa Fe, checking behind us every so often to see half of the sky in bright blue and the other half completely black. We could no longer see the Ranch or its surroundings because they were engulfed in showers.

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Though these rains can be devastating, especially with the recent damage to the Retreat Center buildings, the clouds that roll in and out are treacherously beautiful. When we are out in the land away from town, away from the hustle and bustle, away from city buildings, we see the sky, open above us, or falling down on top of us. It appears to be infinite. And when the thunderheads appear, they grow and swirl around the mountaintops, sliding between two peaks or lowering into distant valleys.

As we watch these fluffy clouds and appreciate all of the extra moisture they bring this summer, I think about Georgia O’Keeffe’s letter to her friend Anita Pollitzer in 1916:

” . . . and the SKY – Anita you have never seen SKY – it is wonderful -“

-Georgia O’Keeffe to Anita Pollitzer, September 11, 1916

(quoted in Robinson 161)

Miss O’Keeffe was living in Texas at that time, enthusiastically describing the open plains and land. She depicted these skies and clouds throughout her life, from her early abstractions:

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Georgia O’Keeffe | Sunrise and Little Clouds | 1916 | watercolor on paper | 8 7/8 x 12 inches | Gift of The Burnett Foundation | Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

to Lake George where she spent time with Alfred Stieglitz:

Georgia O’Keeffe | Storm Cloud, Lake George | 1923 | oil on canvas | 18 x 30 1/8 inches | Gift of The Burnett Foundation | Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

and of course in her beloved home of New Mexico:

Georgia O’Keeffe | Red Hills with Pedernal, White Clouds | 1936 | oil on canvas | 20 x 30 inches | Private Collection, Alpine, New Jersey, 1985

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Georgia O’Keeffe | Red Hills and Sky (Blue and Red Hills) | 1945 | oil on canvas | 30 x 40 inches | Private collection, Dallas, TX | Copyright 2008 The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

 O’Keeffe clearly shows the bright, vibrant blue of the Southwest sky that pierces and speaks to viewers in a purer way than many skies I’ve seen before. She described this when she spoke of her pelvis bone works,

“I was the sort of child that ate the raisin on the cookie and ate around the hole in the doughnut saving either the raisin or the hole for the last and best. So, probably – not having changed much – when I started painting the pelvis bones I was most interested in the holes in the bones – what I saw through them – particularly the blue from holding them up in the sun against the sky as one is apt to do when one seems to have more sky than earth in one’s world . . . They were most wonderful against the Blue – That Blue that will always be there after all man’s destruction is finished.”

-Georgia O’Keeffe in An American Place Exhibition Brochure, 1944

(quoted in Drohojowska-Philp 404)

Georgia O’Keeffe | Pelvis IV | 1944 | oil on board | 36 x 40 inches | Gift of The Burnett Foundation | Copyright 1987, Private Collection

O’Keeffe spent much of her time looking up through the lens of these bones, or out toward the distant clouds of the open skies on the horizon. But eventually the artist changed her perspective from below the clouds to up above when she started traveling internationally by plane. She began to paint what she saw from this bird’s-eye perspective:

Georgia O’Keeffe | Above the Clouds I | 1962/1963 | oil on canvas | 36 1/8 x 48 1/4 inches | Gift of the Burnett Foundation and the Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe | Sky Above Clouds II | 1963 | oil on canvas | 48 x 84 inches | Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe | Sky Above Clouds III / Above the Clouds III | 1963 | oil on canvas | 48 x 84 inches | Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe | Sky Above Clouds IV | 1965 | oil on canvas | 96 x 288 inches | Copyright Art Institute of Chicago

That last one is huge! 96 x 288 inches! It currently hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago and I am itching to go see it. Have you seen it? I dream of what it feels like to see in person, not being able to take the whole work in at once, capturing the infinite expanse O’Keeffe probably felt when she was soaring above the clouds. She created the piece in her garage of the Ghost Ranch house:

Ralph Looney | Georgia O’Keeffe in Ghost Ranch Garage with ‘Sky above Clouds’ | 1966 | photograph | 8 x 9 1/4 inches | Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Online Collection Non-Museum Owned Photography | Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation Photographs

And of course, being Miss O’Keeffe, she abstracted the sky even further, reaching a minimal view of planes and lines, likely to make us feel what she felt and see what she saw:

Georgia O’Keeffe | Clouds 5 / Yellow Horizon and Clouds | 1963 / 1964 | oil on canvas | 48 x 84 inches | Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

Georgia O’Keeffe | Sky Above Clouds / Yellow Horizon and Clouds | 1976 / 1977 | oil on canvas | 48 x 84 inches | Gift of The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation | Copyright Georgia O’Keeffe Museum

When I re-plant my feet on the ground after O’Keeffe takes me up in the sky, I see more light, space, and realize the unfathomably infinite ways in which we can see this world. Georgia O’Keeffe’s cloud paintings speak to me this summer as the fluffy formations drift in and out over us, sprinkling rain here and there.

Standing beneath these expanses, and above them in O’Keeffe’s paintings, broadens our perspectives and leads our eyes upward in captivated stares where we can float away into daydreams of what Miss O’Keeffe might think of these rainy days.

For more perspectives from O’Keeffe, attend:

Conversation with the Curator: In Search of Line, Color, and Composition!

Tomorrow, Tuesday, July 21 at 6 PM:

“Spend an evening of investigation in the galleries with Curator Carolyn Kastner and discuss how O’Keeffe used line, color, and composition to create her modernist paintings. You will learn to see O’Keeffe’s artistic process by comparing the lines, colors, and compositions of her preparatory drawings to her finished works of art. The evening will include walking through the galleries. Stools provided on request.”

Location: Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, 217 Johnson Street

Cost: $15; Members: $10

Written By:

 Liz Brindley, Curatorial Intern

Works Cited:

Drohojowska-Philp, Hunter. Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2004. Print.

Robinson, Roxana. Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1989. Print.

Featured Image:

Georgia O’Keeffe | Sky Above Clouds IV | 1965 | oil on canvas | 96 x 288 inches | Copyright Art Institute of Chicago