An Eero, A Deere, and Clouds: How John Deere and Eero Saarinen Inspired Georgia O’Keeffe’s Largest Painting

Sometime in 1965, on a hot summer day at her Ghost Ranch house in New Mexico, Georgia O’Keeffe would find the motivation to complete her most grandiose painting yet, Sky Above the Clouds IV. Little did we at Optima® know, however, that the luminary architect and industrial designer, Eero Saarinen, alongside legendary agricultural corporation, John Deere, would play a pivotal role in the creation of this monumental painting.

Tracing back to June 4th, 1964 is when the story behind Clouds IV gets interesting. O’Keeffe attended the opening of the new headquarters of Deere 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, as seen with the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

Picture the opening ceremony — a lavish and extravagant affair, showcasing top-of-the-line farm machinery, along with an evening river cruise — with politicians, corporate czars and design stars in attendance. So why was Georgia O’Keeffe, “The Mother of American Modernism” there to begin with? Well, archival photos show that she was mingling with this elite crowd against a backdrop of John Deere tractors. In just about every photo she is seen with her close friend and fellow New Mexican, designer Girard Alexander. Girard had invited O’Keeffe for two reasons. He wanted to showcase his 180-foot-long collage installation documenting the culture and development of John Deere. More importantly, however, was his belief that an O’Keeffe painting would further transform the interior of their cutting edge new headquarters.

Upon her return to New Mexico. O’Keeffe executed a detailed sketch depicting the uniform cumulus clouds that she thought of whenever flying from one destination to another — hence, Sky Above the Clouds I-IV. Where would an O’Keeffe painting go in a building whose every element had been designed and polished to near perfection? 

From its pre-rusted steel exterior, down to the last coat rack and door handle. Girard knew of such a place: the executive dining room. This room was equipped with tantalizing Siamese silk ceiling panels that hung perpendicular to its sublime Portuguese white marble walls. The architectural effect was, by all intents and purposes, cloud-like. Sky Above the Clouds IV would have only elevated this effect, Girard thought, but the Deere team didn’t see it that way, unfortunately, and the commission was axed. 

Georgia O’Keeffe in Garage
Georgia O’Keeffe in Ghost Ranch Garage with “Sky above Clouds IV” (1966), Photo: Ralph Looney

She was in the midst of a busy year. Full of other work, international travel, and even a harrowing knee injury that she was recovering from. Fortunately for us, O’Keeffe persisted in her desire to see Clouds IV to the end. She completed the work, at the age of 77, in the summer of 1965. 

In 1970, Sky above Clouds IV was scheduled to be included in a retrospective of O’Keeffe’s work at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, the Art Institute of Chicago and the San Francisco Museum of Art. After being shown in New York and Chicago, the painting remained on loan to the Art Institute because it was too large to pass through the doors at the museum in San Francisco. Ten years later, due to the diligence of O’Keeffe and local patrons, the painting joined the museum’s permanent collection. Today, this 8-foot by 24-foot masterpiece hangs above one of the Art Institute’s grand staircases for all to see.

The Work of Georgia O’Keeffe

We would be remiss to talk about Modernism without showcasing the women who helped pioneer the movement. One woman in particular, the luminary artist Georgia O’Keeffe, earned herself the nickname the “Mother of American Modernism.” Today, we honor her contributions to Modernism by diving deep into her life and work.

The Life of Georgia O’Keeffe

Born in 1887 in a farmhouse in Wisconsin, Georgia O’Keeffe decided at an early age (10) to become an artist. In 1905, she began her serious formal art training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). She later denounced formal education, feeling too constricted by the strict guidelines that art should imitate what was found in nature. 

It wasn’t until 1912 that O’Keeffe discovered the work of Arthur Wesley Dow, and was inspired by the way he uniquely interpreted subject matters, rather than following traditional modes of artistic creation. From there, O’Keeffe gave permission to herself to experiment in forms that furthered her self-expression and development of style. 

Georgia O’Keeffe, Series 1, No 8, 1917. Public Domain.

The Work of Georgia O’Keeffe

Georgia O’Keeffe is best known for her abstract oil paintings, including many close-ups of flowers. Though many muse the flowers were a symbol for female anatomy, O’Keeffe rejected that interpretation often. Her work was concerned with emphasizing shape and color to illuminate small details.

In 1929, O’Keeffe moved to New Mexico, attempting to escape the socially and artistically oppression of her fame. Partly inspired by a desire to shake Freudian affixations of meaning to her work, and greatly inspired by the native landscape, there O’Keeffe painted New Mexico landscapes and images of animal skulls. 

O’Keeffe’s desert escape and reinvention of inspiration mirrors that of Optima’s own journey, when we expanded to Arizona. We know just how transformative the arid landscape, surprisingly lush desert greenery and culture of the southwest can influence one’s creative scope.

Even in her southwestern escape, O’Keeffe remained heavily in the public eye. Featured in one-woman retrospectives at both the Art Institute of Chicago and the The Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan in the 40’s, O’Keeffe became the first woman to ever have a retrospective at the latter. The next three decades saw her style and subject focus evolve, but it was a quiet period until in 1970, when the Whitney Museum of American Art held a retrospective of her work and brought back buzz. 

While O’Keeffe died in 1986, critical acclaim and love for her work remains. In 2014, her 1932 painting Jimson Weed sold for $44,405,000 — more than three times the previous world auction record for any female artist — demonstrating the art world’s acknowledgment of O’Keefe’s unapologetic vision and pioneering a style.

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