Georgia O'Keeffe is considered one of the most distinguished female artists of the 20th century. She is best known for her lush, vibrant paintings of flowers and sun-drenched landscapes of the American Southwest.
Ansel Adams is one of the most celebrated and influential American photographers. His black and white photographs of America's rugged landscapes are world renowned.
Now, a new exhibit at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., is presenting the work of these two iconic artists side by side for the very first time. The exhibit is co-organized by the Portland Museum of Art and the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum in New Mexico.
"Georgia O'Keefe as an artist was a pioneer in American modernism. She was also one of the first nationally and internationally recognized American women artists," says Eleanor Jones Harvey, chief curator at the museum. "As a result, she has catapulted to the forefront of most people's knowledge of 20th-century American art."
Toby Jurovics, curator of photography at the museum, says pairing the paintings of O'Keeffe with the photography of Adams creates a unique experience for the visitor.
"One of the pleasures of this installation is that you really see the chance for a dialogue between the work of these two artists," he says. "This is the first time that they've been seen together in an exhibition this way, but we also don't want to give the idea that they were working together in the field, which is something that really never happened. They had very different ways of creating."
Despite their artistic differences, O'Keeffe and Adams maintained a long-standing friendship that lasted more than 50 years. Harvey says their mutual love of the American landscape is what drew them together.
"Between the two of them, they saw nature in much the same way, as the touchstone for an entire career's worth of work, and it was that shared sensibility that kept bringing them back together, despite their obvious personality differences," Harvey says.
"One of the things that is so remarkable about Ansel's career is by the time we come to the 1970s, he is the most well-known photographer in America and really throughout the world," Jurovics says. "He becomes a voice not just of fine art photography but of the Sierra Club and the environmental movement, and it's in this way that really most of us, I think, come to know his work first."
When O'Keeffe first arrived in New Mexico in 1929, she immediately fell in love with the landscape.
"She loved the antiquity of the cultures that had lived there but wasn't really interested in painting pictures of people. It was really about the landscapes and the land forms," Harvey says. "The Rancho de Taos Church was one of her favorite subjects primarily because, although the front of the church looks fairly ordinary for an adobe church, it is the back side with these wonderful abstract buttresses that really captured her attention."
Harvey says when Adams went to New Mexico to meet O'Keeffe, she ended up taking a liking to him and took him around to a number of her favorite sites - hoping, perhaps, to help craft his vision for why she loved this landscape so much.
"He, in turn, would make his own photographs of these scenes, but true to his own nature, they were never strictly reinterpretations of what O'Keeffe found valuable about the landscape itself," Harvey says.
"What Ansel said about this church is really wonderful, 'This is like an American cathedral,'" Jurovics says. "I think one of the most enjoyable parts of this exhibition, both for the curators that organized it and for the public that has been able to see it, is how harmonious the dialogue is between Ansel and Georgia.
"They were in the same stream for five decades and working with the same inspirations and the same kind of feeling for the American landscape…and the same desire to be able to bring that internal reaction, that emotion, to a much larger audience, and that, I think, is the great success of the exhibition."
Harvey and Jurovics firmly believe that the work of O'Keeffe and Adams have had a far-reaching influence on American art and culture and continue to amaze and impress art lovers throughout the world.