In the summer of 1965, Georgia O’Keeffe painted the largest work of her career: the eight-by-24-foot Sky Above Clouds IV, which today hangs above a grand staircase at the Art Institute of Chicago. Like the previous three Sky Above Clouds iterations that O’Keeffe painted from 1962 to 1963, it depicts a field of “little oval white clouds” as seen from the window of an airplane. However, IV was a dramatic departure in scale from the previous versions — II and III each measure only four by seven feet. O’Keeffe, usually rather cagey about her creative process, vividly described how she undertook this project in the garage of her Ghost Ranch, New Mexico house — the only space she had large enough for the tremendous canvas. “I was up every morning at six and at work immediately — and I didn’t have my brushes washed until about nine in the evening. […] I had no visitors and I went nowhere.”
Today, O’Keeffe’s several-month painting project might seem like a great way to practice social distancing. But what really motivated O’Keeffe, then in her late seventies, to tackle such a physically strenuous work?
The surprising answer can be traced back to June 4, 1964, when O’Keeffe attended the opening of the new headquarters of Deere & Company Administrative Center in Moline, Illinois. Designed by the office of Eero Saarinen, the structure’s pre-rusted Cor-Ten steel exterior tested the limits of 1960s corporate architecture, veering towards an industrial aesthetic quite unique from Saarinen’s usual swooping curves.
The opening ceremony — an extravagant affair featuring a machinery demonstration and river cruise — was attended by politicians, corporate czars, and star designers. Archival photographs show O’Keeffe mingling with this elite crowd against a background of John Deere tractors. In almost every image, O’Keeffe is accompanied by her close friend and fellow New Mexican, designer Alexander Girard. Girard had invited O’Keeffe in part so she could see his contribution to the headquarters: a 180-foot-long collage installation documenting the culture and development of John Deere. More significantly, Girard used the opportunity to suggest that an O’Keeffe painting would further enhance the stylish new headquarters.
O’Keeffe responded positively to the idea, and after returning to New Mexico executed a full-scale sketch depicting uniform puffy white clouds. Girard wrote to William Hewitt, President of Deere & Company, and admitted that this concept might be difficult to visualize: “I find them very exceptional, and particularly suitable for the space. It is also a subject that sounds most unconvincing. […] The charcoal sketch of the one full size wall need[s] to be seen to comprehend what she enthusiastically wishes to do.”
In a building whose elegant interiors were designed down to the last coat rack and door handle, the space for which Girard found O’Keeffe’s proposal so eminently suited was the most refined of all: the executive dining room. With sumptuous Siamese silk ceiling panels hovering over Portuguese marble walls, the architectural effect was atmospheric, even cloud-like. Situated below ground level against a lake, the dining room’s long, panoramic windows framed a shimmering prospect where the rolling, Japanese-inspired landscape by designer Hideo Sasaki met the lake’s expanse. The horizon of O’Keeffe’s paintings, in which a sea of white cumulous clouds on deep indigo fades into a stratosphere of ethereal blues and pinks, would have echoed that effect. Hung on the richly veined walls flanking the room’s foyer, O’Keeffe’s abstract clouds would have softened the transition between Saarinen’s sleek corporate interior and Sasaki’s soft, organic surroundings.
While it’s unclear which party eventually axed the project, O’Keeffe was clearly having second thoughts, writing in a September 1964 letter to a friend, “I don’t know about the Deere Clouds yet.” 1964 was admittedly a busy year for the artist, full of ambitious painting, international travel, and home renovations. O’Keeffe was also recovering from a sore knee that may have physically limited her from undertaking such a large canvas in her unheated Ghost Ranch garage.
Yet the desire to create a very large cloud painting clearly persisted. And hanging in a major museum, Sky Above Clouds IV has been seen by many more people than it would have in the exclusive John Deere executive dining room. Certainly Alexander Girard and his wife Susan saw it this way. After viewing the painting at Ghost Ranch, Susan wrote:
“We also cannot get the painting — the great clouds — out of our minds! It is truly wonderful. I wish it could stay in the state of New Mexico. It seems to me there are so many people who would greatly appreciate being able to enjoy your work and be very proud that such a painting was here. They should build an O’Keeffe Museum!”
During the painting’s initial exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum in 1966, Hewitt expressed similar enthusiasm in a letter to O’Keeffe: “it should be easy for me to drive to Fort Worth to see your paintings — especially the one you did with our white walls in mind — and I am looking forward to doing this.”
Although it might be a while until any of us will be seeing Sky Above Clouds IV in person, you can check it out online here.