Some photographers still love the medium—so much that they use it twice. They nurture snapshots from family and friends. They hold them in their hands and pin them to the wall. They seek them out on the Web. They cling to album covers and newspaper clippings from long ago. And then they pull out the camera. Photo-Poetics: An Anthology," at the Guggenheim through March 23, takes to photography and other seemingly dated media. Most of its artists work in series or with actual slide shows, one starting the very year that Kodak stopped making slides. They are not, though, conducting exercises in nostalgia, for all the quaintness of "poetics" and "an anthology." (Vinyl, you know, is having a comeback.) The Guggenheim, which has not been collecting photography all that long, can hardly afford nostalgia anyway. It is interested in the passage of time, as how people define themselves in the present. A love affair must sound like a given, but it is not. Sure, photographers had better take an interest in photography, but who knows what that means anymore? The generation of Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine established photography as more political than physical presence. It was something to be restaged and reshot. Critics spoke of the "dematerialization of the image," and MoMA still has its "Ocean of Images." That exhibition of new photography includes more in the way of logos and music videos than stills. With "Photo-Poetics," photography is back, but watch your back. Something else then comes into question, the image.
For Claudia Angelmaier, it becomes a big, beautiful blur. She presents the backs of postcards, waiting for her inscription—or yours. In each, though, one can discern a woman in the soft shades of white. These are museum postcards, of nudes by J. A. D. Ingres and a woman in red named Betty. They are, as Walter Benjamin had it, "the work of art in an age of mechanical reproduction," but also personal. For a German like Angelmaier, Betty is almost as recognizable as Ingres, thanks to the 1988 portrait of his daughter by Gerhard Richter. The type identifies the postcard manufacturer as German, too. Richter borrows the pose from Ingres, and one of those nudes is actually Le Violon d'Ingres by Man Ray, complete with sound holes. The size of the prints matches precisely the size not of the postcards, but of the paintings. Angelmaier plays with photography but also with painting, daring one to ask which matters more.The result is intensely physical, but also at a remove. It is layered, with both sides of the postcard present—and with layers of reproduction, reference, and history. It is the photographic object, as material, dematerialized, and rematerial again. It is open to beauty, but as seen through language, culture, and the artist, not unlike a poem. It is uncanny, too, to borrow a term for the terror of the familiar from Sigmund Freud. The German unheimlich translates literally or maybe cannily as "away from home," not unlike a tourist collecting postcards.
Much the same applies to all ten artists, in work from just the last few years. The curator, Jennifer Blessing, gives them rooms to themselves, but with plenty of common ground. Two photographers hold pictures of sunsets in their own hands, and two borrow the title Crépuscule, the French for twilight—in one case from a poet, E. E. Cummings. Two look out at the rivers to either side of Manhattan, and two fade into a painterly white. One photographs Minimalist sculpture and another her own prism-like constructions in concrete and human ashes. Nine are women, and images of women abound. Just to list their recent appearances in New York brings out their shared themes. Erica Baum and Sara VanDerBeek appeared in a show called "Chick Lit," Anne Collier in "Strange Magic." They are concerned for gender, as something that photography continually makes vital and strange. Collier and Moyra Davey appeared in "The Feverish Library" and Lisa Oppenheim in "The Last Newspaper," for here media are dying only after a long fever. Oppenheim appeared at MoMA in its previous "New Photography" in 2013, Elad Lassry at the New Museum in its 2009 "Generational," and Leslie Hewitt as artist in resident at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 2008. Step back a moment, for new photography five or ten years after.
Kathrin Sonntag, also from Germany, finds the uncanny right in her studio, with slides meant to evoke spirit photography. That superstition arose while the medium was still young and strange, and after the ubiquity of the digital it may become strange again. She, like Angelmaier, also looks to art as artifact of wealth and culture, with the auction catalog for the Guggenheim estate. VanDerBeek, photographs her own delicate constructions of metal and museum reproductions. One assemblage includes a magazine clipping of a birth-control pill, as shadowy and monumental as a tomb. Whose ideals of civilization and autonomy will survive? The daughter of Stan VanDerBeek, she knows poetry as art at first hand, and she has previously visited New Orleans as sites of recovery. Hewitt, too, meditates on architecture and community, with faded snapshots from the time of the civil rights movement, set against landscape and wooden frames. Like their materials, they carry more warmth than hope.
So do Baum's near abstract collages of old paperbacks and The New York Times. They become a found poetry, of what "captured the public imagination" and "remains to be said," even as actors look out from the narrow spaces between the lines as from the Venetian blinds in a film noir. Hewitt also takes her frames into the room, leaning against the wall both in images and, at times, in life. Hewitt calls her work Riffs on Real Time, and Baum's paperbacks describe something as mundane as the weather. What, though, is real time and what the time of poetry and art? For Collier, The Sun Is Always Setting Somewhere Else. She holds photos of sunsets in Iraq and Afghanistan, taken by soldiers, against actual sunsets, which in her slideshow will never fade altogether into night. She also makes the most direct engagement with Sherman's generation, with classic blonds from Ingrid Bergman in tears to Cheryl Tiegs with a camera as extensions of herself. Sherman appears twice over, on the cover of L'Uomo, dressed suitably enough as a fashionable European man. Lassry takes on Hollywood values less directly, through objects of desire against saturated backgrounds and lacquered frames. He alone uses inkjet prints exclusively, rather than photography the old-fashioned way. Davey has her goddesses, too, but not the kind on film. Rather, she composes photo essays on Mary Wollstonecraft's daughters and her mother's bookshelf. The first indeed styled themselves Les Goddesses, but that is a long time ago, and the show still comes down to the gap between real time and an anthology.
The gap keeps vanishing, only to emerge again. It does so on video for Erin Shirreff, with the very emblem of New York as a site of global interchange. Elsewhere, Shirreff has explored affinities between Minimalism and landscape. Here she seems to show nothing more than a static image of the United Nations, until it begins to darken or to fill with light. Is it sunrise or sunset? It is only a set of still photos after all, and the flashes bring out their grain. Photography recognizes its limits, in what will endure and what will change. Here static images multiply in time in order to convey stasis. Angelmaier also photographs a virtual wall of photographs, after a watercolor of a rabbit by Albrecht Dürer. Each is in the open spread of a book, an adjacent book hiding its facing page and any text. Each, too, differs in size, background, color, and resolution, as reproductions will. Once again, she cannot get enough of photography. Just do not expect it to be any more trustworthy, any more explicit in its poetry, or any less alive.
Photo-Poetics: An Anthology Guggenheim Museum 1071 Fifth Ave. UES Map 212 423 3500 guggenheim.org Nov 20, 2015 through Weds, March 23, 2016 Hours: Fri - Weds, 10 to 5:45; Sat to 7:45