review-Masters of the Southwest Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams Natural Affinities, SFMOMA May 30- September 7, 2009
Few American artists have attained the tremendous popularity of photographer Ansel Adams and painter Georgia O’Keeffe, the subject of a fascinating show at SFMOMA which explores how these two monumental artists converge. “Natural Affinities” consists of roughly 100 works by O’Keeffe and Adams and focuses on their approach to landscape and their mutual use of natural forms such as trees, mountains, and water as well as their vital contributions to American Modernism. The exhibition was organized by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe in 2008, toured nationally and is in its final leg at SFMOMA, where it was curated by Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA, Senior Curator of Photography. The show closes on Monday, September 7, 2009 and there is a $5.00 surcharge for admission.
Adams (1902-1984) and O’Keeffe (1887-1906) knew each other for 56 years, from 1929 until Adam’s death in 1985. They met in Taos, New Mexico, in 1929 at the home of mutual friend, Mabel Dodge Luhan, and immediately became friends. They met again the following year in New Mexico when Adams was there making photos
for his first book, Taos Pueblo, published in 1930, and when O’Keeffe was spending her first of many full summers painting there. They traveled together though the Southwest in 1937 and 1938 and visited the Yosemite High Sierra, which Adam immortalized in splendid images. Their most obvious affinity is their mutual emotional attraction to the American Southwest which led each to produce important bodies of work based on their responses to the landscape, enticing desert vistas, mountains, architecture and history. Their iconic images have become so pervasive, so much a part of our mindset, that artists working with this subject matter today, still find themselves compared to, and falling short of, what these two achieved decades ago.
Forces of Modernism
Both artists became leading forces in American Modernism, a period of American artistic innovation roughly dated from the 1890’s to 1960 when artists began to depict contemporary life through experimental forms and new mediums. Modern artists shared a desire to break away from the conventions of representational art and abandoned the old rules of perspective, color, and composition in order to work out their own visions. These new attitudes were reinforced by scientific discoveries of the time that seemed to question the solidity of the known world and the reliability of perception.
Adams’ legacy is as the preeminent American photographer and as a leading environmentalist. In the realm of the grand landscape, Adams is in a class by himself—his vision, perfectionism, unprecedented combination of technical virtuosity and inspired eye are unmatched. His landscapes stand out as moody, exhilarating, near operatic experiences.
Perhaps his most significant contribution to modernism though is through his lesser known but equally impressive images that depict nature’s intimate details—his close-up camera work, his interaction with nature on a human scale, that led him into abstraction. Adams’ close-ups captured aspects of form and texture in the natural world—the lathery foaming of water in motion, the purity of a new delicate blossom, the fuzzy perfection of moss in symbiotic harmony with a tree trunk. These works, many are included in the exhibition, were very personal interpretations in terms of angle, framing and light, and moved photography in a very contemporary direction.
O’Keefe is regarded as one of the leading American female artists of the first half of the twentieth century. She too was inspired by close-up examinations of natural forms and her gift was her ability to distill these into their pure essence leading to abstract, energetic, spiraling, undulating, vibrantly colorful artworks. The critics frequently identified her form of abstraction as the definitive feminine pole and attached Freudian analogies. This pigeonholing annoyed her but also secured her fame in the art world, an arena from which women had traditionally been excluded. In 1970, when the Whitney Museum of American Art opened a retrospective exhibition of O’Keeffe’s work, she became the heroine of the feminist movement, thus positioning her in the limelight, which she had first enjoyed in the 1920s.
Stieglitz shared mentor, promoter
Both O’Keefe and Adams enjoyed a special relationship with the famous photographer and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. O’Keefe’s interaction was complex to say the least—they met when she was 28 and he was 52 and he became her friend, mentor, agent, lover, and husband and he played a tremendous role in launching her career, which she was loathe to fully acknowledge, going so far as to barely mention him in her best-selling autobiography. Stieglitz was her agent from 1916 until 1950 and organized her first solo show in 1917 and another in 1923 at the Anderson Gallery that was tremendously successful and annual shows thereafter. Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, has written excellent chapter on this in Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams Natural Affinities, the book accompanying the exhibition.
By the end of the 1920’s, O’Keeffe was regarded as one of the country’s leading modernist painters and a millionaire (in today’s dollars) in her own right. The languid nude photographs that Stieglitz took and exhibited of her from the early years of their relationship are among the most talked about in twentieth century art history—they immortalized O’Keefe and drew thousands to his gallery. The couple never stopped exciting and challenging each other and stayed married even while living separately—he in New York and she in New Mexico– and each benefited tremendously from the other. By the time she met Ansel Adams in 1929, O’Keeffe was already famous and had the means to do whatever she wanted, which was to devote herself entirely to her art and to spend her time in the American Southwest.
In 1933, Adams traveled across country to meet Alfred Stieglitz, who he called “the greatest photographic leader in the world.” Stieglitz welcomed Adams, eventually giving him the attention and affection he had bestowed upon Paul Strand (Natural Affinities, p. 16). In 1936, Stieglitz gave Adams a solo show at his influential gallery, An American Place, which established Adams as one of America’s leading photographers. Stieglitz and Adams remained lifelong friends and carried on a remarkable and vital dialogue about photography.
Adams and O’Keeffe: Not Always Chummy
There is not much existing written correspondence between Adams and O’Keeffe about their art, so their impact on each other, what they found compelling in each other’s work, and how that might have influenced them must be inferred. I have the impression that even if they had never met, each would have become pretty much the artist that he/she became. There is evidence of enjoyable and creative time spent together as well as some unexplained rifts in their friendship. In 1937, O’Keefe introduced Adams to David McAlpin, Rockefeller heir and arts patron, and the three traveled together later that year photographing and painting throughout the Southwest. It was on this trip, at Canyon de Chelly, that Adams snapped his famous unposed portrait of O’Keeffe beaming at him. In 1940, Adams and McAlpin would play a key role in establishing a photography department in the Museum of Modern Art, the first museum department for photography of consequence. (Adams’ archived correspondence with MOMA.) About that same time, O’Keeffe abruptly broke off her relationship with Adams and chilled towards him for years, with each embarking on extremely productive separate artistic paths, only to pick up their relationship a decade later with genuine warmth. In 1955, at O’Keefe’s request, Adams printed Stieglitz’s negatives for his posthumous show at The National Gallery.
Connections–Shared motifs, subject matter, different sensitivities
The 100 works on display in several galleries across SFMOMA’s 4th floor reveal both interesting commonalities and differences. The curators tried to present the works in a sequence that best allows us to see natural connections but, for the most part, the works remain separated by artist. I came expecting to see more pairings of works. In actuality, most of that work is left for the viewer to do and it’s hit or miss based on your ability to take time with the works as they communicate. I found myself walking through a gallery and needing to turn around and check a work across the way that bore resemblance to one I was standing in front of. Fortunately, I have the catalog so I was able later to flesh out convergences. Even then, I found myself wishing the book was a portfolio so that I could lay works out side by side and conduct my own examination.
The most obvious pairing in the show is a New Mexico motif that both artists tackled in 1929–the small adobe Saint Francis Church in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico. O’Keeffe’s depiction is softer, more organic in feel that Adams’ but both churches seem to grow out of the ground. Adams wrote in The Making of 40 Photographs that he was taken by the church’s “magnificent form” and its “rigorous and simple design and structure.” He shot intentionally from the rear of the church, the angle that he thought made it “one of the great architectural monuments of America.” He did not use a filter either and this allowed the blue sky to appear quite light in his photo, and the shadows were softened.
Several works that share a similarity in subject matter, composition and temperament— O’Keefe’s “Church Steeple” (1930) and Adams’ “The New Church, Taos (1929-30) illustrate each artist’s fascination with the interplay of light and shadow on a starkly geometric architectural form. Adams made several famous shots of this church from different angles, including a full side view. Other comparisons can be made too—a number of Adams’ photos from his Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail (1938) —“Lake Near Muir Pass, Kings Canyon National Park” (1934), “Dead Oak Tree, Sierra Foothills, Above Snelling,” (1938), resemble O’Keeffe’s landscapes.
Both artists also emphasized the abstract component of the Southwestern landscape as can be seen in O’Keefe’s “Black Hills with Cedar” (1942) or her “Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico/Out Back of Marie’s II (1930) and Adams “Ghost Ranch Hills, Chama Valley Northern New Mexico” (1937) or “Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada from Lone Pine, CA” (1944).
The show also includes a number of interesting close-ups done by each artist, revealing a fascination with natural texturing, repetition and light. O’Keefe’s Petunia No 2. (1924) is somewhat comparable to Adams’ “Dogwood Blossoms (1945) and her “Birch Trees (1925) are similar to his shots of “Roots, Foster Gardens, Honolulu, Hawaii (1947). Both artists clearly appreciated the rich texturing of wood—O”Keeffe “Stump in red Hills” (1940) and Adams “Wood Detail, Eroded Stump with Knothole” (not dated). Adams, clearly mesmerized by nature, and highly sensitive to its processes, however, produced close-up works seem more chaste, delicate and poetic in form. O’Keefe seemed more interested in unleashing the power within the plant or object before her, depicting it as if it were about to transform from one form to another.
For all the vibrant energy her works convey though, I was disappointed with a close-up inspection of O’Keeffe’s brush work which was flat and expressionless. Adams’ work, on the other hand, with every imaginable shade of gray, entices you to get closer and closer–even the shadowed areas speak volumes—the work keeps giving until you run out of patience to look.
The show also attests to each artist’s ability to capture their subjects’ most essential qualities, creating brilliant abstractions. O’Keeffe’s gift was her ability to distill her subject down to its core and pump it up with rich pulsating color, imbuing it with a breathing proximate presence that starts to impact you even before you know exactly what you are looking at. “Red Canna,” an oil painting from 1925/28, bursts with heat, intensity, while “Abstraction White Rose” (1927) undulates in concentric swirling layers.
O’Keeffe battled interpreters eager to see every open flower and hollow form she drew as a symbol of womanhood. She said in her autobiography “Nobody sees a flower, really, it is so small. We haven’t time – and to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.
If I could paint the flower exactly as I see it no one would see what I see because I would paint it small like flower is small. So, I said to myself—I’ll paint what I see—what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it—I will make it even busy New Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers. (O’Keeffe, Georgia O’Keeffe, NY, Viking Press, 1976, text accompanying images 23-26.)
Adams works have not invited erotic readings like O’Keeffe’s have. Even in abstraction, he tended to produce photos that were truer-to-life representations of nature, more faithful to optical reality, an optical reality he alone had the patience to look for and to then capture in brilliant composition. “Ice on Ellergy Lake, Sierra Nevada, CA” (1959), starkly captures the meandering line of ice formation on the lake, while “Sand Dune, White Sands National Monument, New Mexico” (1942), captures elegantly rippled sand dunes. “Frozen Lake and Cliffs, Sierra Nevada, Sequoia National Park, CA” (1927) and “Wood Detail, Eroded Stump with Knothole” (not dated) seem to bow to a romantic vision of nature, one of poetry in form.
Adam’s “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941), is a stand-out in the show, one of the best known and most sought after photographs in the field of fine-art photography. The moon sits low but centered in a black sky, against a back-drop of white clouds, mountains. In the bottom lower right, a line of white sunlit gravestones sits against a backdrop of gray pueblos. “Moonrise” said Adams “combined serendipity and immediate technical recall.” Serendipity means lucky chance. He “felt at the time it was an exceptional image” and when he took it, he felt “an almost prophetic sense of satisfaction.” Ironically, Adams happened upon this shot by chance while driving along a roadside heading towards Santa Fe, NM, after an unproductive day of photographing. The conditions were perfect but he was basically unprepared because he didn’t have access to his light meter. He used his knowledge of the luminance of the moon and was able to get this precious shot. Adams said it “is a romantic/emotional moment in time.”
An excellent YouTube interview with Barbara Buhler Lynes, Curator of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe reviews several of the works in the show.
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