Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams first met in New Mexico in 1929 and maintained a lifelong friendship based on a reverence for the natural world. Both, at different times, created work in and about Hawaii: O’Keeffe visited Honolulu and its neighboring islands in 1939 under the auspices of the Hawaiian Pineapple Company (now the Dole Company), while Adams traveled to Hawaii in 1948 for the Department of the Interior and again in 1957 to take photos for a bank publication. If that seems a flimsy pretext to bring the two together, as the O’Keeffe Museum does in its exhibition “Georgia O’Keeffe and Ansel Adams: The Hawai’i Pictures”—well, never mind. Each artist produced some memorable images of the tropics.
Adams trained his lens on conventional landmarks—Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa—but he also found a wealth of new and unexpected subjects: cruise ships and freighters, Buddhist graves, TV antennae, workers, helicopters, and schoolchildren. O’Keeffe, not surprisingly, gravitated to the islands’ exotic flora and dramatic scenery. Her close-ups of flowers—birds of paradise, heliconia, lotuses—are characteristically sensuous, while her paintings of waterfalls succeed in conveying the majesty of the Hawaiian landscape. Adams’s black-and-white shots, though beautifully composed, just can’t compete. For the most part, the curators avoid the temptation to compare and contrast, but one gallery does focus on the two artists’ fascination with lava, O’Keeffe memorializing a natural black lava bridge in choppy brushwork, Adams reveling in the surreal topography of a hardened flow.
Striking a slightly discordant note are Dole’s final ads featuring O’Keeffe’s images. Reproduced in the primitive color of the times, these are sadly flat abstractions, possibly not what the company had in mind to hype the products of paradise.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of ARTnews on page 100.