Ghostly images are present — and past
NEW YORK — Forty years ago, Harold Bloom published a work of literary criticism called “The Anxiety of Influence.’’ Bloom argued that poetry of the past worked as much to deform and afflict latter-day poets as inspire them. The book stirred up considerable controversy in literary and academic circles. No one has written a comparable book about the visual arts. If someone did, it surely would go unremarked beyond its specific merits. The past isn’t so much a burden for visual artists as it is an archive to plunder and bank account to draw on.
“Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance,’’ which runs at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum through Sept. 6, offers a sweeping, provocative, but ultimately unfulfilling survey of this relationship between artistic present and (recent) past.
The lack of fulfillment is, in part, a function of the show’s sweep. “Haunted’’ covers an awful lot of ground; its subtitle tells you as much. Superficiality is the price such ambition exacts, and that’s not too high a price to pay. More daunting is the artistic nature of “Haunted.’’ This is very much a curator’s exhibition: steely in intellectual thrust, its satisfactions almost wholly conceptual. It’s a chilly show, its contents blanched in imagination and parched in emotion. The ghosts who populate “Haunted’’ would seem to reside in polar climes. Or used to, anyway. So much of the art here feels far from home. A sense of dislocation haunts “Haunted.’’
The show includes some 100 works, by more than 50 artists. A fair percentage of the latter are art-world brand names: Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Mapplethorpe (more and more we can see that in his obsession with the old sex-and-death duality, death held the upper hand), Robert Smithson, Cindy Sherman, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andy Warhol.
Even in life, Warhol’s was a ghostly presence, and he presides over “Haunted’’ like a spectral sovereign. So many of the show’s concerns, Warhol shared: appropriation, duration, reiteration, mortality, the allure of emptiness. There may be only one of his works on display, “Orange Disaster #5,’’ but his fertile, unblinking blankness seems to coil throughout the Guggenheim’s curves.
There’s very little of his humor, though. (Once the initial shock of his subject matter wore off, Andy’s wit was the most subversive thing about his work.) Rachel Harrison’s assemblage “Blazing Saddles’’ is a happy exception. It includes among its elements a box of Campbell’s Barbecue Beans. If you’ve seen the movie, you get the joke — and if you’ve ever seen one of Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes,’’ you get it in a different way. Joan Jonas’s “Mirror Piece I’’ isn’t funny, per se, unless you get a laugh out of optical confusion, but it has the playful wit of a Magritte.
Photography isn’t the only medium in “Haunted,’’ as the subtitle indicates, but it’s the predominant one. Which makes sense. Every photograph is a form of haunting: a superimposition of the past (a photographic image) on the present (a viewer). This figurative ghostliness can become very nearly literal through technical or conceptual means. Sally Mann shot the three Southern landscapes here through old and sometimes ill-functioning equipment, thus giving them the appearance of 21st-century emanations from a 19th-century past. An My-Le’s photographs of Vietnam War reenactments were taken in similar settings to those Mann shows. Haunting is in terms of subject: The memory of one war haunts the reimagining of another.
A bromide print, Idris Khan’s “Homage to Bernd Becher’’ does not so much show a water tank, one of the many industrial structures so rigorously recorded by Becher and his wife, as an apparition of one: soft and cloudy (a cloud is itself a form of water tank). So Khan’s photograph is a ghost image twice over, in appearance and as a kind of afterimage of the Bechers’ work.
Appropriation might be thought of as homage minus the deference. As a stance toward the past, it’s less a case of haunted by, than impressment of. Appropriation made Sherrie Levine’s reputation. Her “After Rodchenko: 1-12’’ consists of a dozen images of the Soviet photographer’s work. They possess a zestfulness and musicality of invention that indicts an awful lot of the surrounding work. Maybe it’s just something about Russians. In a small gallery off the Guggenheim ramp is a tiny exhibition, “Malevich in Focus: 1912-1922,’’ which runs through June 30. There are just six paintings by the Suprematist artist, but something like “Painterly Realism of a Football Player (Football Match)’’ has a crisp, vibrant particularity that makes a lot of “Haunted’’ seem like a troubled dream. Harold Bloom might call it the anxiety of everything.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.