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AN ODD COUPLE
by N.F. Karlins
 
"Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities" is an exhibition of glorious images -- her paintings, his photographs -- devoted to the western United States.  This show, organized by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe, N.M., brings together the works of these two artists who were colleagues, but only intermittently friends.

Rather than emphasizing the similarity of works, however, the show exposes how different they are, as were the two people behind them. O’Keeffe’s paintings, often head-on compositions, almost bursting with sensuality, confront Adams’ carefully calibrated gradations of tone in photographs, often shot looking upward, imbued with spiritual aspiration.

During the summer of 1929 in New Mexico, O’Keeffe’s first in the southwest away from her husband, photographer and art dealer Alfred Stieglitz, she created Ranchos Church No. 1, with its restless undulating walls that threaten to push out of the picture plane. 

In the same year, before Ansel Adams decided to become a photographer rather than a concert pianist, and several more before he took a portfolio to show to Stieglitz in New York for the first time, Adams met O’Keeffe in Taos and shot Saint Francis Church Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico. In his photo, the walls reach up toward the sky. The church is a blocky, sturdy mass, a pedestal for the clouds or a landing pad for angels. Moody it isn’t.

Though Adams moved from Pictorialism to sharp-focused, spare compositions inspired by Modernism (which had already fired the creativity of O’Keeffe), O’Keeffe’s works have less in common with his than those of their mutual friend Edward Weston. Weston’s shots of peppers that look like nudes, as well as his nudes that look like, well, nudes, and his abstract natural forms, often taken around Point Lobos, Ca., share a sensuality that flickers in Adams’ works and that’s center-stage in O’Keeffe’s. 

Just think of Weston’s sexy Artichoke or Chard, and then of almost any of O’Keeffe’s flowers.  Even though O’Keeffe resented the way that Stieglitz reduced her person through his photographs of her to her sexuality, which spilled over into the appreciation of her paintings, sensuality is inherent in all her work.

O’Keeffe’s almost hallucinogenic close-up of Pink and Yellow Hollyhocks from 1952, however, shares little with anything in Ansel Adams’ oeuvre. 

And Adams’ mist-shrouded falls and rocks in his Base of Upper Yosemite Fall, Yosemite National Park (ca. 1950) and other Yosemite photos don’t even have a location similar to that in most of O’Keeffe’s western paintings. Still, they’re great works of art, both based on images that their makers saw in the West. I was glad to see them.

But O’Keeffe and Adams do share a fascination with the western landscape and a number of similar subjects.  Their works, even here though, tend to underscore their differences.  Her Black Hills with Cedar (1942), with its flesh-colored hills that resemble labial folds, could be seen as a view up the legs of a supine woman. But Adams’ compositionally similar Ghost Ranch Hill, Chama Valley, Northern New Mexico (1937), which he made while on a visit to the O’Keeffe’s ranch, has a distinctly different, aloof majesty.

While Adams deeply admired Stieglitz, he had an on-again, off-again relationship with O’Keeffe. They were distant in the 1940s and then became friendly again later on, perhaps because they realized they were very different people and just accepted it. Surely O’Keeffe, a private person and the more famous and successful artist, had little to lose. And Adams, diligent in presenting a public face for the appreciation of photography and for preserving the environment, was nourished by the western landscape, too, and was generous in acknowledging his debt to Stieglitz, if not to O’Keeffe.

"Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities" is at the Smithsonian American Art Museum through Jan. 4, 2009. Even an awkward space and dull-colored walls that do nothing for the paintings can’t dim the achievements of these two fine artists. 

The exhibition, organized by independent scholar Anne Hammond and Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and Emily Fisher Landau director of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum Research Center, has already been presented at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The show will be seen next year at the Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, Florida (Jan. 23–May 3, 2009) and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (June 9-Sept. 20, 2009).


N.F. KARLINS is a New York critic and art historian.



 



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