This exhibition offers an overview of how the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum's photography acquisitions have evolved since its inception through a substantial gift of 194 works from The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation in 1993. The exhibition also provides a concise survey of the various approaches to photo-based art found in contemporary art of the last two decades. In keeping with the museum's collecting philosophy, works have been acquired with the intention of representing selected artists in depth rather than attempting to map an entire movement or period. Through substantial recent gifts and purchases, the museum has made significant acquisitions in the contemporary realm, focusing on artists who approach the medium more conceptually.
These include two related series of works by Anna Gaskell—wonder and override—which are freely based upon Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and exemplify a tendency among photo-based artists to work with metanarrative construction. This tendency is a legacy of the ideas introduced in the late 1970s and early 1980s by artists such as Laurie Simmons and Cindy Sherman, the latter of whom is represented here by five works acquired in 1997 that represent important directions in her art, from her renowned films stills of the late 1970s to iconic works such as Untitled, #112 (1982) from the "color test" series, in which Sherman assumed various adolescent or streetwise personas dramatized by experiments in light and color.
Six photographs by Gabriel Orozco exemplify how contemporary photography has built upon the medium's dual status as both document and artifact. Not a photographer per se, Orozco uses the medium as one aspect of his multidisciplinary practice, documenting interventions or encounters during his travels around the world.
Other approaches to the medium bear the legacy of the pioneering Conceptual work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose art entered the Guggenheim's collection in the early 1980s. Miles Coolidge and Andreas Gursky, who studied with the Bechers in Düsseldorf, both approach photography as a means of capturing the objectification of contemporary human activity and the tension between constructed order and natural order.
Rineke Dijkstra, an artist based in Holland, is represented by three recent acquisitions from her Beaches series (1992–96), composed of sober, large-scale portraits of people the artist encounters on beaches around the world. The works form a survey of similar types of objects, not unlike the Bechers' celebrated studies of water towers and grain elevators.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, both Uta Barth and Bill Jacobson dematerialize their subjects in order to better understand their essential character, bringing us full circle in demonstrating how the camera can see what we often overlook.