Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstract paintings are among the most important contributions to the field of 20th century art history. Her early series of abstract watercolors of 1915-1918 brought her great critical acclaim among the avant-garde, particularly the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who she married in 1924. And though O’Keeffe’s intimate series of colorful flowers are perhaps her best known, the abstract paintings she rendered toward the end of her life play a vital role in the appreciation of her work. These radically minimalist paintings are among O’Keeffe’s boldest creations, but comprise only a small selection of her vast oeuvre. Beginning in 1963, O’Keeffe produced a mesmeric series of large-scale abstractions known informally as the “cloud paintings,” to which the 1966 Sky with Moon belongs. “In each painting the sky is seen from an airplane, reflecting a sense of limitless space: a vast horizon, below which is a passive sea of floating clouds. … The great size of the canvas, the flat and distant horizon, the orderly pattern of receding clouds, and the pale, serene colors all contribute to a sense of mystical tranquility, a calm and meditative view of infinity…” O’Keeffe’s biographer, Roxana Robinson, has written (R. Robinson, Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life, Hanover, New Hampshire, 1999, p. 500). This small body of work contains only a handful of paintings, and several are owned by major American museums: Sky with Flat White Cloud of 1962 belongs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and Sky with Clouds IV—a 24-foot, mural-sized painting featuring fluffy, white clouds—is owned by the Art Institute of Chicago.
While in her seventies, O’Keeffe traveled by plane for the first time and was awestruck by the expansive view of the horizon and the clouds seen from outside her window. “The sky looked as if you could just go out the door of the plane and walk right off to the horizon,” she explained. “The clouds looked so solid. I couldn’t wait to get home to paint it” (G. O’Keeffe, quoted in a 1970s interview; accessible via https://whitney. org/WatchAndListen/622). Working in her studio in Abiquiu, New Mexico, O’Keeffe began to translate this experience into painting, and in 1963 she embarked upon the cloud paintings. This evocative body of work features large-scale canvases, with broad areas of white that encompass nearly the entire painting. A horizontal band of softly-modulated color evokes the distant horizon along the painting’s upper edge. “These paintings are profoundly modern, yet embody a timeless notion of stillness in the midst of perpetual change,” the artist Rita Donagh has written. “Within their sublime vistas, the spectator is held in a state of arrested motion” (R. Donagh, “Georgia O’Keeffe in Context,” The Oxford Art Journal, April 1980, p. 44).
Painted in 1966, Sky with Moon typifies O’Keeffe’s cloud paintings, brilliantly evoking the boundlessness of wide, open spaces and the particular quality of weightless suspension experienced onboard a cruising airliner. Distinguished by its expansive, broad field of softly rendered white pigment that stretches toward the horizon along the painting’s upper edge, Sky with Moon illustrates the “feeling of infinity on the horizon line” that O’Keeffe sought to convey. A thick blanket of white clouds extends toward a band of tenderly brushed blue, where a pale winter’s moon is graced by a thin, wispy cloud that’s colored in a very pale apricot-pink. Measuring four-feet by seven-feet in size, the painting’s wide expanse envelops the viewer in its delicate white aura. O’Keeffe teases out depth and dimension from the white field, where subtle undulations gradually emerge from the central white mass, and the barest hint of pink and blue peek through. This knife-edged balance between representation and all-out abstraction remains among her greatest gifts.
In 1914, O’Keeffe had studied the principles of design espoused by the influential artist and teacher Arthur Wesley Dow, who taught her to “fill space in a beautiful way” by finding compositional balance. Dow instilled in O’Keeffe the three main principles of line, notan (the Japanese principle of light/dark) and color. In turn, his teachings galvanized O’Keeffe to create a series of abstract drawings in 1915 that are among the very first abstract work ever created by an American artist. Indeed, Sky with Moon recalls the same pictorial strategies that O’Keeffe developed in these early years. It demonstrates the heightened sense of realism that forces her images to the very edge of abstraction. It is only then that O’Keeffe was able to convey the mystical and spiritual qualities that she found in her real-life subjects and which are the source of their strength. O’Keeffe described this quality as “the unexplainable thing in nature that makes me feel the world is big far beyond my understanding” (G. O’Keeffe, quoted in Georgia O’Keeffe: A Studio Book, New York, 1976).
O’Keeffe described her cloud paintings as “the best working period I have had in a long time…” (G. O’Keeffe, quoted in H. Drohojowska-Philp, Full Bloom: The Art and Life of Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, 2004, p. 484) and indeed there is a feeling of gravitas to these large-scale, Minimalist creations. They can be seen as the culmination of O’Keeffe’s lifelong process, in which she imbued her paintings from nature with a certain ineffable spiritual quality that verges on the sublime. “In the great, late cloud pictures…[they] are totally independent of time,” the Swiss curator Bice Curiger described in her catalogue of O’Keeffe’s work at the Kunsthaus Zürich, where Sky with Moon was exhibited in 2004. “The cloud paintings fit no category, they have a touch of Pop, but at the same time they are non-aggressive, even disarmingly amiable, literally triumphing over everything...floating, flowing, not hard, everything open and lit up by inner light” (B. Curiger, “Holding Up the Sky,” in Georgia O’Keeffe, exh. cat., Kunsthaus Zürich, 2003, p. 27).