Saturday, August 8, 2009

Two Modern Affinities for Nature

Ansel Adams and Georgia O'Keeffe at SF Moma

Massing: O'Keeffe and Adams in Taos

by Tod Mesirow

Painting and photography have been intertwined since Fox Talbot and Niepce first figured out how to capture an image. Some – most recently, Hockney comes to mind – have even noted that using photographic techniques to represent the real world in a frozen moment on canvas pre-date the chemical fixing of an image by centuries. But how do paintings and photographs compare when featured side by side?

The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's current show Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities pairs the painter, student, lover, muse and wife of the doyen of modern American art, Alfred Stieglitz, against the photographer, he of the epic pristine landscape images. It may be a gratuitous exercise to do so, as nothing needs to be done for either; O'Keeffe's reputation seems as secure in the pantheon of American painters as Adams' among American photographers. But when situated as though for a competitive derby, the works didn’t do much to dissuade me from my notion that some of O'Keeffe's best work was done as a model for Stieglitz, and that when compared to Adams her work can appear less ground-breaking and more decorative.

The pair were indeed proximate. Mabel Dodge Luhan, one of the salon world luminaries from the first half of the 20th century, set up a writer’s colony in Taos in 1919. Adams and O’Keeffe first met at Luhan’s Los Gallos, according to the exhbition, in the summer of 1929. Adams returned the following summer and met photographer Paul Strand. According to the exhibit, Adams “claimed it was the first time he had encountered a truly modern photograph.”

The first room of the exhibit is filled with Steiglitz images, F64 images, and a 1925 O’Keeffe painting of black and purple petunias. From the F.64 group, there is an Edward Weston, the iconic Pepper No. 30, from 1930. It led me to wonder if Weston knew what Adams, a fellow F.64 founder, said about Strand, and whether he said it before or after he saw the pepper shot. It is difficult not to think of the pepper shots as modern in their simplicity, their purity, their sensuous play of natural curves and light.

There’s an unusual Adams, from 1935, Pine Branch in Snow. It is the opposite of what is normally thought of when one says Ansel Adams. Instead of the sweeping expanse of pure pristine wilderness, this image is close, intimate, quiet, and serene. The crisp focus, the gray scale on display contribute to the sense of natural peace to be found in a snowy forest. The hushed quality of the sound is powerfully evoked, and one can easily place themselves inside the remote winter woods, slipping easily into the image. Close-up, delicate, minimalist.

The second room finds more readily recognizable Adams photographs, including his best known image, the iconic Moonrise, Hernandez, 1941.

There is an Adams photo and an O’Keeffe painting of the same subject, a church in Taos. O’Keeffe’s painting is titled Ranchos Church No. 1; Adams is St. Francis Church. Both images were created in 1929 (though the Adams print in this exhibition was made in 1973). It’s interesting to see how each artist chose to frame and shape their subject. Both occupy the frame effectively, though here the painting, despite being more spare, is the warmer image.

In the third room, Adams has a later image, Ice on Ellery Lake, from 1954. It has modernist, surrealist, and elegant touches. There is also an earlier landscape, a classic epic Adams, Lake near Muir Pass, Kings Canyon, 1934. This is what we think of when we think of Adams; it is pristine, and crisp, the grandeur and silence of the environment at its most powerful.

Adams also has some cloud images, perhaps an homage to Stieglitz, which are interesting as exercises but not particularly significant as stand-alone images.

O’Keeffe’s paintings in this room are pretty, and decorative, but unremarkable. Should art rely on context for its power?

In the fourth room, the exhibition pairs O’Keeffe's Stump in the Red Hills, 1940, an orange and red composition, next to Adams’ Dead Tree, near Dog Lake, 1935

The photo has more impact than the painting. Again, side by side O’Keefe more often than not suffers by comparison.

The fifth room is about trees. There are four O’Keeffe paintings and six Adams images. While looking at one O’Keeffe, White Birch,1925, I overheard one viewer say to her friend “looks like it could be a scarf.”

One of the Adams images, Oak Tree, Snowstorm, Yosemite, 1948, is suffused with ethereal light. It’s not a close-up like Pine Branch in Snow, but it’s also not the massive sweeping scope and outsized scale of the familiar Adams style. It does what all successful works of art do: it stops the viewer, draws the viewer in, and carves out a place inside one’s consciousness where the image feeling linger in tandem, to be called upon as needed at any future date.

We're also treated to some snow sequences of Adams from the 1930's, printed in 1982. Now the shapes are melted around rock, dirt, evoking again the modern, minimal, natural, zen-like quiet; there is even almost the sound of the state of change after snowfall, as the sun warms the earth. Representational and abstract at the same time, the documented metamorphosis preserves an otherwise ephemeral shape and line in nature. These images are effective, evocative, powerful. It made me wonder what Adams thought, as he stood in his darkroom in 1982, printing these images from fifty years before.

I will note that is is a popular exhibition: on a Monday, and despite the extra fee for the exhibit, there was quite a crowd of museum goers. But ultimately the notion of combining these two artists didn’t yield the frisson I imagine the curators were after, but it does provide an excellent opportunity to see some amazing Ansel Adams images, and to see them mixed in with the closely related artistry of Georgia O’Keeffe.