The Guggenheim Isn't Really Haunted

04/12/2010 4:00 AM |

Haunted may be a bit of a misnomer for the Guggenheim's latest exhibition. It's a title that implies eeriness, artwork with an emphasis on the supernatural. Granted, the rotunda may be darker, but that isn't for atmosphere's sake; it's to accommodate the looped film on the building's top floor. Haunted (through September 6th) is about the enigmatic, nearly invisible threads that bind photography and video; the ephemerality of the subject, nostalgia for places and people long gone, and the postmodern predilection for archives and documentation. A worthy premise, no doubt. But haunting?

According to curators, photographers and video artists are plagued by the past; haunted by outmoded subjects and media. But after viewing the whole exhibition, it remains to be seen whether photographic artists are any more influenced by the past than other visual artists. The show moves roughly chronologically from the building's ground level to the top, each floor marking a new era in the history of art. But with each era comes a heavy-handed explanation of the art's formal qualities, making the show read more like a lesson in postmodern and contemporary art than an interactive exhibition. That's not to say that the work isn't interesting; the show features work by some of the twentieth century's most influential artists; Barbara Kruger, Robert Mapplethorpe, Cindy Sherman, and Jeff Wall are among the artists represented. But the ambiguities and mysteries that the exhibition seeks to highlight are exactly what defy the works' classification. Of course similarities do exist among them; the appropriation of media images into art and Roland Barthes' "Death of the Author" are too pervasive and significant to be denied. But trying to tie the works all together into neat, chronological categories feels too narrow and academic; it forces some of the images into categories that just aren't fluid enough.

The show starts with the exhibition's two heaviest hitters: Andy Warhol's notorious "Orange Disaster #5" (1963) and Robert Rauschenberg's "Untitled" (1963). Not only are the two iconic works early examples of image appropriation, they mark the start of art's journey in the past fifty years. Luis Jacob's "Peru Album IV" (2004-2005) assembles 84 laminate panels that contain casually linked media images, but it's up to the viewer to make the associations. The second floor is dedicated to landscape photography like Ori Gersht's painterly vistas and An My Le's "Small War Series," (1999-2002), images that capture startlingly realistic and elaborate re-enactments of Vietnam War battles. Three images from Sally Mann's "Virginia Series" (1992) rise into view as languidly as tendrils of smoke. Captured on an antique camera, her photographs of the Virginian wilderness are colorless except for rich golden tans and sooty charcoals, yet the lushness of the landscape still translates to paper.