Black White and Blue was painted at a critical juncture in Georgia O'Keeffe's life. In 1929 she began to spend several months of each year in New Mexico, away from both New York and her husband, Alfred Stieglitz, the photographer and promoter of American modernist painting and photography. As she embraced the clear light of New Mexico, her art changed and became cleaner, sharper, and both literally and metaphorically larger and more focused. Rejecting some of the emotionalism of her work from the 1920s, she began to adopt a more distanced approach and to concentrate on simpler forms and cooler subjects, often with overt religious symbolism. The underlying structure of the parched land of the Southwest and its churches, crosses, and animal skulls became the object of her scrutiny. Like Black White and Blue the best of her paintings after 1929 are infused with a religious, iconic, and even monumental quality.
In addition, after 1929 O'Keeffe started painting larger canvases, perhaps as a result of the scale of the land itself or even of the magnitude of her revived ambition. During the 1920s she had made many small paintings, several not much more than 9 x 10 inches. Only New York—another big subject—had consistently motivated O'Keeffe to create large paintings. Her only other paintings of comparable size, Black Cross, New Mexico (1929, 39 x 30 1/16 inches, The Art Institute of Chicago) and Cow Skull: Red, White, and Blue (1931, 39 7/8 x 35 7/8 inches, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), are New Mexico works of comparable ambition that were clearly inspired by O'Keeffe's fascination with the crosses that dot the Southwest landscape. "Anyone who doesn't feel the crosses," she told the critic Henry McBride, "simply doesn't get that country." 
O'Keeffe said little about her paintings, but in 1976 she wrote that Black and White (1930, Whitney Museum of American Art), an earlier version of Black White and Blue, "was a message to a friend—if he saw it he didn't know it was to him and wouldn't have known what it said. And neither do I."  Messages, though, can usually be decoded. The friend was most likely a New Mexico male acquaintance who did not often, if ever, see O'Keeffe's paintings.  It could have been Tony Luhan, Mabel Dodge Luhan's Native American husband, whose quiet, dignified, enigmatic presence O'Keeffe greatly admired.  In addition, because O'Keeffe repeatedly asserted that she could express herself better in color and form than in words, the "message" is also undoubtedly encoded in the color and structure of the painting itself. Black White and Blue presents the intersection of two quite different forms—one black and fluid, one blue and rigid—that are both pierced and about to be divided by a sharp white wedge. Again, parallels can be drawn to the dark and mysterious Tony Luhan, who also had a Native American wife whom he regularly saw, provoking fits of jealousy and despair in Mabel that threatened to tear apart their union.
However, the critical point is that O'Keeffe stated that she herself did not know what the message was. This was not a coy remark on her part. For O'Keeffe the very act of painting was a way of clarifying an experience for herself: it was not a way of illustrating an idea or explicating a cause, but simply the means she used to express her visual, emotional, sensual, and tactile experience of the world. It was her way of coming to terms with, of knowing and understanding, an experience. As she repeatedly insisted, her paintings embodied the "things that I had no words for . . . the intangible thing in myself that I can only clarify in paint." 
(Text by Sarah Greenough, published in the National Gallery of Art exhibition catalogue, Art for the Nation, 2000)
1. As quoted by Henry McBride, "O'Keeffe in Taos," New York Sun, 8 January 1930; reprinted in The Flow of Art: Essays and Criticisms of Henry McBride ed. Daniel Catton Rich (New York, 1975), 261.2. O'Keeffe in Georgia O'Keeffe (New York, 1976), opposite plate 53.3. Lisa M. Messinger, "Sources for O'Keeffe's Imagery: A Case Study," in From the Faraway Nearby: Georgia O'Keeffe as Icon, eds. Christopher Merrill and Ellen Bradbury (Reading, Mass., 1992), 55 - 64, has written that the source of this painting is Edward Weston's photograph The Ascent of Attic Angles (1921, private collection). However, while O'Keeffe learned much from photography, there is no evidence that she ever saw this photograph or knew of it. Moreover, while she had met Weston in New York in 1922, she probably did not consider him a "friend."4. See letter from O'Keeffe to Russell Vernon Hunter, January 1932, as quoted in Jack Cowart, Juan Hamilton, and Sarah Greenough, Georgia O'Keeffe: Art and Letters [exh. cat., National Gallery of Art] (Washington, 1987), 205.5. See O'Keeffe 1976, opposite plate 13 and Alfred Stieglitz Presents One Hundred Pictures, Oils, Watercolors, Pastels, Drawings by Georgia O'Keeffe, American [exh. cat., The Anderson Galleries] (New York, 1923), unpaginated.
on panel on reverse in monogram with star; on label on reverse: [title and date]
Acquired from the artist by Edith Gregor Halpert, New York; (her sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet Inc., New York, 14-15 March 1973, 1st day, no. 46); Mr. and Mrs. Barney Ebsworth, St. Louis, Missouri; gift (partial and promised) 1998 to NGA.
Associated NamesEbsworth, Barney A.
- Georgia O'Keeffe, An American Place, New York, 1931, no. 1 or no. 2, as Abstraction.
- Exhibition of Work by Newly Elected Members and Recipients of Grants, The American Academy of Arts and Letters and The National Institute of Arts and Letters, New York, 1949, no. 42.
- The Precisionist View in American Art, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Detroit Institute of Arts; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; San Francisco Museum of Art, 1960-1961, unnumbered catalogue.
- Geometric Abstraction in America, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston; Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Utica; City Art Museum, St. Louis; Columbus College of Art and Design, Ohio, 1962-1963, no. 68.
- Summer 1963, The Downtown Gallery, New York, 1963, no cat.
- A Gallery Survey of American Art, The Downtown Gallery, New York, 1965, no cat.
- Roots of Abstract Art in America 1910-1930, National Collection of Fine Arts (now National Museum of American Art), Washington, D.C., 1965-1966, no. 139.
- 42nd Anniversary Exhibition, The Downtown Gallery, New York, 1967, no cat.
- The 1930's: Painting & Sculpture in America, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October-December 1968, no. 79, repro.
- The Downtown Gallery, New York, February 1968.
- The Downtown Gallery, New York, September 1969.
- Selections from the Edith Gregor Halpert Collection, The Busch-Reisinger Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1973.
- Paintings by Georgia O'Keeffe, St. Louis Art Museum, 1974, no cat.
- Georgia O'Keeffe, Marion Koogler McNay Art Institute, San Antonio, 1975, no cat.
- 2 Jahrzehnte amerikanische Malerei, Städtische Kunsthalle Düssseldorf; Kunsthaus Zurich; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, 1979, no. 87.
- Georgia O'Keeffe: 1887-1986, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Art Inst. of Chicago; Dallas Museum of Art; Metropolitan Mus. of Art, New York; Los Angeles County Mus. of Art, 1987-1989, not in cat. (shown only in New York and Los Angeles).
- The Ebsworth Collection: American Modernism, 1911-1947, Saint Louis Art Museum; Honolulu Academy of Arts; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1987-1988, no. 51, repro.
- American Impressions: Masterworks from American Art Forum Collections 1875-1935, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., 1993, no cat.
- In the American Grain: Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley, John Marin, Georgia O'Keeffe, and Alfred Stieglitz, 6 venues in U.S. and Japan, 1995-1996, shown only at Seattle Art Museum, 1996, not in cat.
- Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Seattle Art Museum, 2000, no. 50, color repro.
- Modern Art and America: Alfred Stieglitz and His New York Galleries, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2001, no. 182, repro.
- Buckley, Charles E., William C. Agee, and John R. Lane. The Ebsworth Collection: American Modernism, 1911-1947. Exh. cat. Saint Louis Art Museum, Honolulu Academy of Arts, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1987-1988. St. Louis, 1987: 21, no. 51, repro.
- Lynes, Barbara Buhler. Georgia O'Keeffe: Catalogue Raisonné. 2 vols. New Haven and London, 1999: 1:421, no. 701, color repro.
- Art for the Nation: Collection for a New Century. Exh. cat. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 2000: 102-103, 305, color repro. (not in the exhibition).
- Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 419, no. 351, color repro.
- New York et l'art moderne: Alfred Stieglitz et son cercle [1905-1930] (Nueva York y el arte moderno: Alfred Stieglitz y su Circulo). Exh. cat. Musée d'Orsay, Paris; Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid. 2004: no. 153, repro.
- Marshall, Richard D. Georgia O'Keeffe: Nature and Abstraction. Exh. cat. Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin; Vancouver Art Gallery. Milan and New York, 2007: 118-119, no. 44, repro.