Friday, September 4, 2009

Georgia O'Keefe and Ansel Adams at SF MOMA

Georgia O'Keefe, painter, met Ansel Adams, photographer, at Los Gallos Ranch in New Mexico in 1929. This show at SF MOMA compares and contrasts these two kindred spirits who were attracted to the same settings and subjects in the big open spaces of the American Southwest.

It's easy to see that for both of these artists, inspiration came from nature. Ansel Adams is known for capturing many of this country's greatest natural monuments in the early days of photography. O'Keefe is best known for her macro-view paintings of flowers and other natural forms.

The works are loosely grouped by subject matter: Taos pueblos and churches with crosses are powerful images in the O'Keefe and Adams works. We also see how both artists were fascinated by the twisting forms of trees, and by the barren hills and riverbeds of the desert in New Mexico.

O'Keefe was a painter who was influenced by photography. She often zeroed in on her subject in close-up, as a photographer would, to capture detail. She also played with scale, making small subjects like flowers and bones monumental on large canvases.

Adams the photographer was no doubt influenced by abstract painters. Many of his photos were taken at times of stark shadow, creating extreme contrasts between darks and lights. This creates abstract rippling lines of shadow in photographs of barren hills and sand dunes.

For me, the O'Keefe paintings outshine the Adams photographs. My eyes feast on her palette of colors, ranging from creamy yellows to rich warm earthy reds to expansive sky blues to velvety purple blacks. Adams' smaller prints seem to shrink in the shadows of O'Keefe's large, glowing paintings. Even her tiny flowers expand and radiate light. It would have been nice to have seen Adams' work on a grander scale, with large-format prints.

Georgia O'Keefe has been my lifelong inspiration. I was delighted to see old favorites and new ones in this show. She painted in a symbolic language that is like that of Chinese painters. A few lines, clouds of color, and spiraling shapes could create a landscape, or a flower, or a skull, or a hill. I admire her economy, spareness and simplicity. Yet her colors are so luscious and luminous, that her paintings truly come alive.

"Georgia O'Keefe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities" is on view at SF MOMA through September 7.

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