ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Forever linked to arid Southwestern landscapes and bones, Georgia O’Keeffe once sought a diametrically opposed inspiration – the tropical lushness of Hawaii.
Ansel Adams may be instantly defined by those craggy Yosemite portraits, but he too once sought a more verdant vision of lava and leaves.
At the height of their careers, both O’Keeffe and Adams accepted commissions to work in the 50th state, an experience that challenged the techniques of both as they reached to capture the essence of life in the tropics.
Lifelong friends and correspondents, the pair met in the summer of 1929 at Mabel Dodge Luhan’s Taos home.
In Hawaii, neither followed the familiar tourist clichés of moonlit seas, swaying palms or the pervasive Diamond Head profile. Instead, they produced tightly focused abstractions of exotic foliage and dramatic landscapes. Both artists possessed a nearly spiritual reverence for nature, as well as the impact of photographer/impresario (and O’Keeffe’s husband) Alfred Stieglitz. Stieglitz taught that art was much more than a mere representation of reality. To him, it was the artist’s expression of subjective experience; an affirmation of life itself.
“Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawai’i Pictures” is now up at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. The exhibition marks the first collaboration between the Santa Fe museum and the Honolulu Museum of Art.
In 1939, O’Keeffe accepted a commission from Dole Pineapple’s New York advertising agency to spend three months producing advertising imagery in Hawaii. It was an era when advertisers often hired fine artists to add cachet to their campaigns.
“There was much crossover,” O’Keeffe curator Carolyn Kastner said. “Advertising and design in the ’30s was a new thing and they could get artists to respond to that.”
O’Keeffe spent her time in the Pacific drawing, painting and photographing the hills and valleys and their exotic flora. What she saw there forced her to hone and develop her technique beyond the precise lines and nearly imperceptible brushstrokes of her previous work.
In “Black Lava Bridge, Hana Coast, No. 1” (1939), she renders spectacular volcanic formations and scalloped waves in uncharacteristically choppy brushstrokes. In “Cup of Silver Ginger” (1939), she presents viewers with a nodding upper petal, the deepening greenness in the calyx unfolding in a center of energy. She edged each petal in a delicate, lacy froth. With “White Bird of Paradise” (1939), she reached beyond her characteristic poppies and petunias to capture the rigid architecture of the plants, whose waxy exterior bracts protect the delicate flowers blooming within.
O’Keeffe rendered “Waterfall-No. 1-`Iao Valley, Maui” (1939) centered in the signature “V” shape she often used in floral stamens, a waterfall trickling down the center, “like Jack-in-the-Pulpits,” Kastner said, or the artist’s canyon paintings. The valley was the sacred site where ancient Hawaiian chiefs were buried.
“This is her really being pushed out of her comfort zone,” Kastner added.
O’Keeffe returned with 20 canvases of flowers and landscapes Dole would use in magazine ads and leaflets. Stieglitz exhibited the paintings at his famous New York gallery.
Adams traveled to Hawaii 10 years later, commissioned by the National Park Service and Hawaii National Bank. Armed with his own established method for expressing a sense of place, at first he had misgivings about the tropical, hazy environment.
He complained that the “skies are not clear blue, the clouds too many and formless … and the foliage disappointing.”
But – like O’Keeffe – Adams changed his technique to create beautifully expressive works of the abundant natural environment by adapting his already established zone system of photography. He transformed the radiant colors surrounding him into a black and white tonal range that was the vibrant equivalent of the original.
“He was using his sense of the zone system – the range between pure white and black and how you get the entire range,” Kastner said. Adams chose a wider range of subjects than O’Keeffe, shooting the islands’ pineapple fields against production factories, white-aproned workers, and numerous portraits, including children in a history class and plantation workers. He explained his motivation for picturing people and place in a 1938 letter: “If I have any niche at all in the photographic presentation of America, I think it would be chiefly to show the land and the sky as the settings for human activity.”
“Petroglyph, Outlined in Kiawe Leaves, near Kawaihae, Hawai’i” (1958) suggests the merging of native Hawaiian and Western cultural influences.
The leaves of the kiawe tree fill a shallow stone carving of a figure. Christian missionaries introduced the tree to Hawaii in the 19th century. In “Nobuo Yoshida, Farmer near Kaunakaki, Moloka’i” (1958), Adams frames papaya trees with the farmer harvesting the fruits and vegetables. In “Leaves, Foster Gardens, Honolulu, Hawai’i” (1957-58), “the veins of the leaves appear as bursts of light radiating from the center and delineating the individual leaf shapes,” photography historian Anne Hammond writes in the catalog essay.
The Santa Fe exhibition also includes a feast of O’Keeffe-iana in the form of her original plywood desk, her tools, a favorite antelope skull and – of course – her paints and palettes. Backdropped by a panoramic photograph of her sweeping Chama River Valley window view, all were left meticulously arranged and organized in the artist’s Abiquiú studio, revealing the care and discipline of her approach to her work. There’s an ostrich egg nested in a Neiman Marcus box, the toothbrush she used to clean her paintbrushes, the carefully wound thread that ensured her straight lines and a cardboard box of glass jars containing her own hand-crushed natural pigments. Everything is carefully labeled.
“We have over 300 brushes,” Kastner said.
The exhibit also features charcoal drawings from Hawaii, as well as the advertising imagery that resulted from her paintings.