Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Modern Art, Modern Friendship
Ansel Adams photographs are © The Ansel Adams Publishing Rights Trust. Reproduced with permission.
“Her genius will always be in flower, no matter what age or events come upon her.” – Ansel Adams on Georgia O’Keeffe
Few artists have served as both a driver of Modernism and as one of its nexus points but Georgia O’Keeffe is one of the precious few. This exhibition looks at one of the meeting points: the friendship between O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams.
While working in different mediums, O’Keeffe and Adams transformed Modern art and landscapes. Looking at similar vistas or regions, they individualized their view of the American landscape, shaping our understanding of America and Modernism. Despite this shared appreciation of the landscape, their personalities and approach to making art could not be starker. In bringing them together, Heather James hopes to show both their artistic and personal connection, shedding new light on two giants of 20th century art.
The American Southwest looms large in the imagination of the country, a place of majestic beauty and wild freedom. This is partly due to the art of both Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams but what brought them to this region? O’Keeffe came west to escape New York and Alfred Stieglitz; Adams, to step outside California, broaden his focus, and to meet East Coast artists like O’Keeffe. In an odd way, it was America’s two coasts coming together.
O’KEEFFE AND THE SOUTHWEST
New Mexico nourished O’Keeffe. She made her first prolonged trip in 1929, the same year that she would meet Adams. She continued to make sojourns to New Mexico, capturing the uniqueness of its landscape, culture, and architecture, before settling permanently in 1949. In New Mexico, O’Keeffe crafted a new visual language of Modernism, one that is not wholly figurative nor wholly abstract, indebted as much to an artist’s internal vision as to the external realities of the environment.
“I fell quickly under the spell of the astonishing New Mexican light.” – Ansel Adams
ADAMS AND THE SOUTHWEST
Ansel Adams made his first visit to the American Southwest in 1927, returning each year until 1930. Unlike O’Keeffe, the region was not an escape or a refuge but a land of possibilities to encounter East Coast artists and to expand beyond his beloved California. It was on one of these trips that Adams first met O’Keeffe.
A BURGEONING FRIENDSHIP
Georgia O’Keeffe brought Ansel Adams into her circle of friends and introduced him to David McAlpin in 1937. McAlpin, whose passions were photography and conservation, purchased several of Adams’s photographs that are today, cornerstones of the Museum of Modern Art collection which he helped to found in 1940.
In 1937, the three compatriots, O’Keeffe, Adams, and McAlpin would travel through the Southwest. It was at Canyon de Chelly that Adams would take one of the most famous portraits of O’Keeffe. In 1938, the three would hike into the Yosemite High Sierra and beyond into the High Sierras.
“No one else has extracted from it such style and color, or has revealed the essential forms so beautifully as she has in her paintings.” – Adams on O’Keeffe
AT ARMS LENGTH
Despite these trips and shared friends, the friendship cooled over time. Or, perhaps it is best to acknowledge that it was O’Keeffe’s attitude toward Adams had cooled.
Alfred Stieglitz had mentored both artists, with perhaps Adams owing more to Stieglitz. O’Keeffe never let Adams forget what he owed to Stieglitz as well as mutual friend Paul Strand. Once, she was heard to remark that Adams was “capering through life – making a monkey of himself to attract attention.”
In addition to O’Keeffe’s ambivalence and their age difference of almost 20 years, the two approached life and art making differently. Adams was an extrovert, eager to spread both the technical aspects of photography and his images to protect the National Parks. He would work steadily with a relentless productivity to create highly refined photographs unmatched in their quality and detail. On the other hand, O’Keeffe was thought of as reclusive, with a measured productive output. It is no wonder that the friendship could be strained given their differing personalities.
Nevertheless, after the death of Stieglitz, O’Keeffe began to soften to Adams, finally addressing him in her letters as “Dear Ansel” instead of the formal “Dear Ansel Adams.” She would even visit Adams at his home in Carmel in 1974 and 1981. A documentary captured Adams’ last visit to O’Keeffe at her Abiquiú home in 1981.
ADAMS, O’KEEFFE, AND MODERN ART
New Mexico brought together two titans of 20th century art, giving them the creative space to produce artwork that challenged the possibilities of painting and photography. On their meetings in the state, the two would study the same subjects and scene, each pushing their respective compositions.