- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2008

A new exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum combines the work of two of the most popular artists of the past century, painter Georgia O’Keeffe and photographer Ansel Adams.

This comparative view sounds like a play for increased museum attendance, but mostly avoids the charge through an intimate, balanced presentation of 96 works in a show organized by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M.

It’s hard to imagine any exhibit could shed new light on the overexposed careers of Miss O’Keeffe and Mr. Adams, but this one does in concentrating on the “natural affinities” between the nature-loving artists who worked in different media and were a generation apart.

The prickly, controlling painter was 15 years older than the gregarious photographer and was already famous when the two first met in 1929. They became friends but quickly established their own separate artistic territories: Miss O’Keeffe in New Mexico and Mr. Adams in Yosemite National Park and the High Sierras.

While separated by geography and technique, the two adopted a like-minded approach to unpopulated Western landscapes and their dramatic topographies. The exhibit immediately makes the point by opening with Miss O’Keeffe’s “Black Mesa Landscape,” a red clay hill juxtaposed against blue mountains, and Mr. Adams’ “Winter Sunrise” with its peaks similarly contrasted in black and white.

Later in the show, the artists’ treatments diverge in their nearly identical views of a church near Taos, N.M. Mr. Adams’ photograph plays up the building’s sculptural form while Miss O’Keeffe’s painting flattens it into weightless planes.

The connections and contrasts between the works are helped by the exhibit’s thematic organization, which takes advantage of the gallery’s sequential bays flanking a center aisle. Miss O’Keeffe’s paintings are clustered on one side and Mr. Adams’ photographs on the other, and the two rhythmically alternate through the length of the space.

From mountain landscapes, the show shifts to smaller images of stones, sea shells, lichen and other close-up views of nature. This is one of the few places where photos and paintings are shown side by side and some of the pairings present an almost perfect match, such as the concentric ovals of Miss O’Keeffe’s “Red and Pink Rocks” and Mr. Adams’ “Snow Sequence II,” both from the 1930s.

Even when their viewpoint isn’t identical, the two artists continue to depict the same natural subjects with surprising consistency. The last gallery concentrates on a shared interest in gnarly stumps and branches, including Miss O’Keeffe’s “Gerald’s Tree I,” set against a salmon cliff and Mr. Adams’ solitary “Dead Oak Tree.”

For those visitors who favor one artist over the other, the exhibit allows Miss O’Keeffe’s work to be viewed separately from Mr. Adams’, but the combination of the two succeeds in establishing a visual dialogue that refreshes our perspective of their familiar works.

With Mr. Adams’ precise pictures of inky peaks and ghostly trees hanging nearby, Miss O’Keeffe’s compositions of the same subjects come across as more grounded in naturalism than in abstraction. At the same time, her shaded paintings help us see Mr. Adams as a calculating modernist whose trademark strong contrasts underscore elemental shapes in nature.

Seen together, the images appear to be part of the same nature-modernist movement, rather than as representing separate environmentalist and feminist agendas as respectively touted in other Adams and O’Keeffe exhibits of recent decades. Of course, their works have been carefully edited for this exhibition to reinforce the common vision.

The interconnectedness of the works is somewhat surprising given the distance between the photographer and painter, who never created their work side by side. Though Mr. Adams snapped some of his most renowned pictures in New Mexico, including his famous “Moonrise” landscape in the exhibit, he conceded “the Southwest is O’Keeffe’s land” in a 1983 book.

The painter, in turn, accompanied Mr. Adams and their mutual friends on a trip through Yosemite in 1937, but never based any of her work on the locale. She kept the upper hand in the relationship by constantly reminding the younger artist of his debt to New York gallery impresario and photographer Alfred Stieglitz who was the glue cementing the professional and personal ties between Miss O’Keeffe and Mr. Adams.

Stieglitz launched both their careers with solo shows and coached their Western work from a distance. He is the invisible force behind the “Natural Affinities” exhibit in being largely responsible for its shared outlook.

In the 1940s, aggrieved by Stieglitz’s death, Miss O’Keeffe had a falling out with Mr. Adams, but the two repaired their friendship during the following decade. They wrote to each other regularly about preserving Stieglitz’s legacy and visited each other in 1976 and 1981.

In old age, the painter and photographer must have realized how much they had in common through the pictures they had made. This exhibit reminds us of that strong bond.


WHAT: “Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities”

WHERE: Smithsonian American Art Museum, Eighth and G streets NW

WHEN: 11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily through Jan. 4 except Christmas Day


PHONE: 202/633-1000

WEB SITE: americanart.si.edu

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide