As is true with all of Georgia O'Keeffe's finest works, the strength of Trees Abiquiu IV lies in its careful balance of realism and abstraction, its intricate layering of objective and subjective meaning and its synthesis of form and color. Painted in 1951, after the artist had settled in New Mexico, the work reflects the intense spirituality that she associated with the landscape.
O'Keeffe's lifelong fascination with the forms and colors found in nature manifested itself in her various depictions of diverse physical forms. Natural objects ranging from sensuous shells and exotic flowers, to more modest objects such as autumn leaves, skunk cabbage and animal bones found their way equally into O'Keeffe's paintings. In 1944, the artist said: "I have picked flowers where I found them -- Have picked up sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood where there were sea shells and rocks and pieces of wood that I liked. When I found the beautiful white bones on the desert I picked them up and took them home too. I have used these things to say what is to me the wideness and wonder of the world as I live in it." (as quoted in E.H. Turner, Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, Washington, D.C., 1999, p. vi)
The tree became an important element of O'Keeffe's imagery in 1943 when she began to paint the cottonwood trees that spread outside her bedroom and studio windows at her home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. In a letter to Arthur Dove, O'Keeffe wrote, "I wish you could see what I see out the window-the earth pink and yellow cliffs to the north-the full pale moon about to go down in an early morning lavender sky behind a very long beautiful tree covered mesa to the west-pink and purple hills in front and the scrubby fine dull green cedars-and a feeling of much space-It is a very beautiful world-I wish you could see it" (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters, New York, 1987, p. 233)
To O'Keeffe, the cottonwoods represented more than a beautiful landscape; she saw them as a symbol of regeneration and immortality. "She had begun to paint the cottonwoods in the river basin below the mesa in Abiquiu; evidently, she had chosen to hang one at Ghost Ranch to provide contrast with the dead tree stumps and shriveled vegetation outside the glass windows." (J.G. Castro, The Art & Life of Georgia O'Keeffe, New York, 1985, p. 130-31) She continued to develop the theme of these trees throughout her career -- the earliest sharp and angular versions gave way, over time, to more attenuated and ethereal representations. In Trees Abiquiu IV, O'Keeffe imbues the trees with this same ethereal quality, creating an almost otherworldly effect. Her innovative use of an elevated vantage point adds to this effect as the viewer floats above the New Mexico landscape. A neutral palette with characteristically warm earth tones also contributes to the overall sense of softness and silence. It is this layering of visual and spiritual interpretations of the landscape that makes Trees Abiquiu IV a characteristically remarkable work.
O'Keeffe wrote, "I long ago came to the conclusion that even if I could put down accurately the thing that I saw and enjoyed, it would not give the observer the kind of feeling it gave me. I had to create an equivalent for what I felt about what I was looking at -- not copy it." (as quoted in Georgia O'Keeffe: The Poetry of Things, p. 69) A true Modernist, rather than simply creating an objective visual record of that which she discovered in nature, O'Keeffe chose to represent the forms in Trees Abiquiu IV in an abstract way by focusing on the act of painting itself, and by including her subjective emotions about the real objects into her representations. Ever faithful to her subject, she endows the scene with a weightlessness and spirituality that befit the landscape that surrounded O'Keeffe in Abiquiu.