Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities
Smithsonian American Art Museum
Through Jan. 4

This show of works by “two of the most popular artists of the past century” at first seems like a blatant play for box office, said Deborah K. Dietsch in The Washington Times. What, really, do Georgia O’Keeffe’s abstractionist paintings and Ansel Adams’ high-contrast photographs have in common? More than you would think, actually. The two were longtime friends—if occasionally estranged—and shared a mentor in O’Keeffe’s husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Both also depicted mountain landscapes of the American West—New Mexico in O’Keeffe’s case; Yellowstone in Adams’. Seeing Adams’ and O’Keeffe’s works facing one another across the galleries at the Smithsonian American Art Museum “refreshes our perspective of their familiar works.” At times their close-up depictions of lichen, “gnarly stumps and branches,” and sea shells “present an almost perfect match.”

Such comparisons are interesting but “slightly pointless,” said Paul Richard in The Washington Post. You could find similar connections among any of the artists working in the American West in the 1930s and 1940s. In truth, “their pictures aren’t much alike. Nor were the artists.” Besides being 15 years older than Adams, O’Keeffe was glamorous and haughty, and usually painted in extravagant color. The “rough-hewn, cheery” Adams worked primarily in black and white. Adams had impeccable technical skills, but his bombastic nature scenes are “conventional, old-fashioned, operatic.” O’Keeffe had the opposite problem. Her best images “strike you as piercing and mysterious,” but she had no technique. Studying their works here, one concludes that perhaps the only thing they really have in common is that both were, in fact, mediocre artists with oversize reputations.