A fine regard for the visible world

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By Roger Snodgrass

SANTA FE – When two artists cross paths in a provincial desert, the coincidence may barely register on the busy world. But decades later, the first acquaintance between giants of American art offers an illuminating way to look at each of them, their relation to each other and the similarities and differences in their extraordinary artistic contributions.

A new exhibition at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, “Georgia O’Keefe and Ansel Adams: Natural Affinities,” opening today and running through Sept. 7, celebrates the lifelong friendship between two modernist artists, one a painter and the other a photographer – both fixated on the power and beauty of the natural world.

The project brings together nearly 100 works by the two artists, in nine rooms where their works are interspersed or shown separately.

At a preview Thursday, Barbara Buhler Lynes, curator of the museum and director of its research center, introduced the exhibit as the product of “American icons.”

O’Keefe, 52 at the time, was older and already a successful artist in 1929 when she met Adams, 37, in Taos, where he was gathering photographs for a book he published the following year.

O’Keefe was spending her first summer in the state to which she would lay artistic claim before her death 47 years later. He was from the West and she was lately a New Yorker.

It was the beginning of a long friendship that would include many visits and memorable excursions. For Adams, the meeting was a ticket to good fortune, as he would later meet O’Keefe’s influential husband Alfred Stieglitz in New York and with his blessing, have a breakthrough exhibition in the Stieglitz gallery, An American Place.

Both artists were drawn to nature – flowers, trees, rocks and ranges. They were interested in details, rhymes, rhythms, patterns, repetitions and layers.

As a “straight” photographer, who did not believe in cropping or manipulating the image, Adams understood the power of the frame to gather and arrange the drama of a scene.

O’Keeffe, too, painted close-ups and, in her aerial landscapes inspired by airplane flights, wide shots as well, as if influenced by a scene in a viewfinder.

Still they could both look at the same subject, like the church at Ranchos de Taos, from a similar distance and direction and achieve quite different impressions. Their two views of the landmark structure serve as a logo for the exhibition. Adams’ somber picture emphasizes complex lines of tone and shadow. O’Keeffe’s building is lighter, more handmade and vivid.

Another important contrast has to do with time and permanence. O’Keeffe’s paintings are often on geological time, as with a dry waterfall that seems ageless and unchanging.

Adams’ camera, with the blink of its shutter implicitly stamped the instant of each image and separated one moment from the next. At times, this theme became more explicit, as when melting ice or vanishing frost was caught in transition.

The photographer’s son Michael Adams and his wife Jeanne were part of the press preview Thursday morning.

Michael Adams was with his father on the day when he took what is probably the most frequently reproduced New Mexico photograph, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico.” Michael Adams recalled his father’s scramble to take the shot late in the day before the eerie light on the headstones of a village cemetery was lost.

His father couldn’t find his light meter, Michael Adams said, but took a quick guess based on what he knew of moonlight.

“Only one image was taken and then the sun was gone,” he said.

The O’Keeffe Museum has pulled out all the stops and added new bells and whistles for this exhibition, including a catalogue, videos, webcasts, podcasts of lectures and a number of follow-up programs.

The museum is open until 8 p.m. today, and from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday through Thursday. For more information, visit the museum’s revamped website, www.okeeffemuseum.org.