One of Georgia O'Keeffe's most sophisticated works, Black Cross with Stars and Blue is also among her most powerful and moving images. Painted in New Mexico in 1929, the work reflects the intense spirituality and wonder the artist associated with the Southwestern landscape.
Black Cross with Stars and Blue was first exhibited at Alfred Stieglitz's New York gallery An American Place in the winter of 1930. (Fig. 1) By this point, O'Keeffe had already established herself as one of the most popular and important artists of her generation. While Stieglitz was anxious about her new work and expected few sales, explaining "Her things are a bit too daring this year," a great deal of excitement preceded the show; one New York columnist exclaimed "the O'Keeffe craze in the art circles has attained the fury of a spinning tornado." (as quoted in R. Robinson, Georgia O'Keeffe: A Life, New York, 1989, p. 348) Of the twenty-nine works included in the 1930 exhibition, nineteen were from New Mexico, including Black Cross with Stars and Blue.
O'Keeffe first visited New Mexico in April 1929, marking arguably the most critical point in her development. "As she shed New York and embraced the brilliant light of New Mexico, her work became cleaner and sharper as she began to employ greatly simplified forms, often with overt religious symbolism. The churches, crosses, and animal skulls of the Southwest became the object of her scrutiny, as well as the underlying structure of the parched land itself. Encapsulating not only the passion and intensity of the life in the Southwest but also its ultimate mystery and impenetrable sense of otherness, the crosses, O'Keeffe believed, were essential to understanding the New Mexico experience: 'Anyone who doesn't feel the crosses,' she told McBride, 'simply doesn't get that country.' Stripped of the fleshiness of her earlier work, the best of her paintings after 1929 began to be infused with a religious, iconic, and even monumental quality." (S. Greenough, "Georgia O'Keeffe: A Flight to the Spirit," in Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and his New York Galleries, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 460)
As was typical of her approach to her subject matter, O'Keeffe experimented with serial images and painted a series of four large cross canvases while in New Mexico in 1929. This working method was typical of the artist, who said "I work with an idea for a long time. It's like getting acquainted with a person, and I don't get acquainted easily...Sometimes I start in a very realistic fashion, and as I go on from one painting to another of the same thing, it becomes simplified till it can be nothing but abstract."
In Black Cross with Stars and Blue, the strong geometric cross design is pushed into the foreground, confronting the viewer and demanding attention. Through its sheer size, the work becomes more powerful and monumental. "In the early 1920s when she was still under the sway of Stieglitz's photographs, many of O'Keeffe's paintings were not much more than eight by ten inches, the size of most photographer's prints. Yet, perhaps as a result of the scale of the New Mexican landscape itself, the size of her borrowed studio spaces, or even the magnitude of her revived ambition and confidence, among O'Keeffe's paintings from New Mexico in 1929, 1930, and 1931 were some of her largest works to date. Size and scale were clearly issues of importance to O'Keeffe at this time." (S. Greenough, "Georgia O'Keeffe: A Flight to the Spirit," in Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and his New York Galleries, Washington, D.C., 2000, p. 463)
Monumental in subject as well as in scale, the crosses are charged with a palpable tension and reflect the intense spirituality the artist associated with the New Mexico landscape. Describing O'Keeffe's work from this period, J. Cowart has written: "By 1929 O'Keeffe confirmed that her truest, most consistent visual sources were in the American Southwest. These sources refreshed her physically, mentally, artistically. The sky, the vastness, the sounds, the danger of the plains, Badlands, canyons, rocks, and bleached bones of the desert, struck her as authentic and essential to her life as well as to her art. She wrote to Henry McBride from Taos in 1929, 'You know I never feel at home in the East like I do out here--and finally feeling in the right place again--I like myself--and I like it ' In the Southwest she found primal mystery, foreign even to this daughter of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. And it was from the Southwest that O'Keeffe would so forcefully try to capture the wild, unusual essences in her art as it turned more figurative. In search of the marvelous, she advised Russell Vernon Hunter, 'Try to paint your world as though you are the first man looking at it.'" (Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, New York, 1987, p. 5)