Master Class

OK, class. Today we examine the work of those two great visual poets of the American Southwest, painter Georgia O'Keeffe and photographer Ansel Adams. Compare and contrast among yourselves.

No such academic exercise is needed, fortunately. The work — or most of it anyway — has already been done for us in the crowd-pleasing exhibition "Georgia O'Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities." As the title indicates, the pairing is a natural. They're represented roughly in equal measure — more than 40 O'Keeffe paintings and more than 50 Adams photographs. Amazingly, this is the first time their work has been presented side by side.

On the sunny Sunday I visited, the show proved so popular that at times it was difficult to get close enough to the art for a good look, bringing to mind a comment from O'Keeffe (quoted in the catalog) about keeping her beloved New Mexico to herself. In 1977, she said in a PBS documentary: "When I got to New Mexico, that was mine. As soon as I saw it, that was my country. I'd never seen anything like it before, but it fitted to me exactly. It's something that's in the air. It's different. The sky is different, the wind is different. I shouldn't say so much about it because other people may be interested, and I don't want them interested."

The Wisconsin-born O'Keeffe "got to New Mexico" for the first time in 1917 on a train trip detour that took her through Santa Fe, although she didn't have her first extended stay until 1929, when she and Adams were among the many artists and writers who met at the home of arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan. At the time, O'Keeffe was 42 and Adams 27, but the two became friends immediately and remained so for the rest of their lives. (He died in 1984; she followed two years later.) In the summer of 1937, they traveled with friends through New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado, and a year later they reunited, again with other friends, for a ten-day camping trip that took them through Yosemite, which by that time was a favorite Adams haunt. O'Keeffe later described the trip as "one of the best things I have done."

While most of O'Keeffe's segment of the show is devoted to her work from the years after she discovered New Mexico, a good chunk of it includes paintings from the 1920s — abstractions and florals, primarily, although a few canvases seem to suggest that well before she actually spent substantial time in the desert Southwest, she was anticipating it. A moody landscape like Storm Cloud, Lake George (1923), for instance, comes across as spiritual kin to many of the later vistas, as does The Red Hills With Sun (1927), which is reproduced in the lavish catalog but not included in the Norton version of this traveling exhibition.

Adams, for his part, covered territory that overlapped with that of O'Keeffe, as well as portions of his native California, especially Yosemite, which he had begun exploring with a camera while still in his teens. One of his most famous images, Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico (1941), is included here along with works featuring sites in Arizona, Utah, Wyoming, and even Alaska and Hawaii. He returned to New Mexico repeatedly; O'Keeffe eventually settled there for much of her life.

Some of the show's juxtapositions are startling. O'Keeffe's Ranchos Church No. 1 (1929) and Adams' Saint Francis Church, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico (c. 1929), for example, are essentially two ever-so-slightly different views of the same subject, remarkable in their similarities. Her Black Mesa Landscape, New Mexico (1930) and his Winter Sunrise, the Sierra Nevada From Lone Pine, California (1944), on the other hand, are uncannily similar takes on very different subjects, captured by two virtuosos of their respective media.

For all their "natural affinities," however, the friendship between O'Keeffe and Adams had its ups and downs over the years, as charted in one of the catalog's three essays. Perhaps this should come as no surprise, not so much because so many friendships are subject to such vagaries as because of the dramatic differences in the temperaments of the two artists. Adams was fascinated by the technical intricacies of his chosen medium and willing to share his experience and expertise, while O'Keeffe was a more solitary figure, immersed in her craft. Adams was active in the Sierra Club and called up presidents to express his environmental concerns. O'Keeffe worked largely in seclusion and was picky about whom she chose to entertain.

After last year's exhibit of O'Keeffe abstracts focusing on circular forms, this is the second year in a row that the Norton has featured the prolific artist's work, but when the shows are this good, it's easy to overlook the repetition. A debt of gratitude is also due the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe for assembling the current show, which was on view at the O'Keeffe Museum before traveling to the Smithsonian and now to the Norton, after which it will conclude at the Museum of Modern Art in Adams' hometown of San Francisco. It's an extraordinary exhibition. Don't miss it.