It’s very rare that museum directors or curators, when introducing a new show to a room full of writers and critics, say anything remotely thought-provoking or profound. Introducing the Rineke Dijkstra mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim, however, the museum director Richard Armstrong made a simple, obvious, but truly striking declaration. “Rineke Dijkstra,” he said, “is an artist with very few peers.”
“I like it when everything is reduced to its essence. You try to get things to reach a climax. A moment of truth.”
Rineke Dijkstra, a Dutch photographer now in her early fifties, has been on the radar of the art world since the early 1990s, when she first showed her Beach Portraits, a seductive series of adolescents, framed in all their self-conscience awkwardness, by the immense blue background of the ocean. Ill-fitting bathing suits, gangling bodies, and knobby knees are offset in Dijkstra’s Beach Portraits by the honest faces and unshielded emotions of her teenage subjects. Dijkstra has been redefining portrait photography for over two decades, capturing in painstaking detail the awkward honesty of youth and the utter vulnerability of early adulthood. In a 2007 interview she explained, “I like it when everything is reduced to its essence. You try to get things to reach a climax. A moment of truth.”
After hearing Richard Armstrong rightly classify Dijkstra as a “peerless” artist in an era of artmaking that often seems to lack authenticity, it is hard not to wonder why Dijkstra’s artwork does indeed feel so singular. The answer seems to be something of a paradox: because Dijkstra’s photographs are so openly inspired by the 17th century Dutch master painters, they are uniquely compelling as 21st century hyperrealist portraits. The Guggenheim retrospective, which includes seventy photographs and five provocative videos, shows us how Dijkstra draws from the artistic history of the Netherlands, and translates that inspiration into her unique contemporary work.
The show opens with Dijkstra’s early artwork from the 1990s. Serial works that include adolescents posing alone on the beach, photographs of new mothers minutes after giving birth, and portraits of bullfighters taken shortly after winning their bullfight, dominate the first floor galleries. As we wander the space meeting the gaze of the faces staring outward, their expressions seem to run the gamut of emotion. We encounter the shy body language of adolescents, the traumatized faces of new mothers already protecting their newborns, and the defiant, adrenalin-consumed faces of young, masculine, and bloody Matadors.
Shot against neutral or indistinguishable backgrounds — the generic horizon line of the ocean, a dirty hospital wall, or the private room of a bullfighting arena — Dijkstra’s portraits feel more like paintings than photographs. Her habit of capturing her subjects as they stare frankly into the camera, framed with the utmost simplicity, recalls the formal classicism of the Dutch masters. Where Dijkstra’s subjects are is secondary to who they are, and like the old masters her portraits are detailed and precise, making them feel both contemporary and historical.
Photography, so specific and full of extraneous detail, is manipulated by Dijkstra to be as vague and emotive as a brush stroke.
Denying us information about a particular place, Dijkstra offers instead a particular moment of expression, as though she is trying to convey timeless sentiment rather than a grounded time, place, and person. As she states, “If you show too much of a subject’s personal life, the viewer will immediately make assumptions. If you leave out details the viewer has to look for much subtler hints.” Photography, so specific and full of extraneous detail, is manipulated by Dijkstra to be as vague and emotive as a brush stroke.
Moving upstairs we find a different kind of serial portrait, one where Dijkstra photographs the same individual, following her subjects through different moments of their lives over the span of many years. In her project Almerisa (1994–2008), Dijkstra presents eleven different portraits that document the aging of a young Bosnian refugee living in a Dutch asylum. We watch this young girl grow into a woman through a series of photographs capturing her as an anonymous, uniform clad girl, a despondent teenager slouching in an uncomfortable chair, and a confident and content new mother. In another like series, Olivier Silva, Dijkstra follows a young Frenchman as he enlists and serves in the Foreign Legion. As his boyish innocence fades and his face hardens, and as his uniform changes as he moves up in rank, we clearly see how he became the stern and defiant young man he is in Dijkstra’s final portrait.
These time-based projects, and the many others like them that Dijkstra has created over the decades, are reminiscent of the many self-portraits of Rembrandt. He watched with a careful eye his own reflection, how it altered and changed, in the hope of revealing something more meaningful about his own evolution. We get the sense, looking at Dijkstra’s photographs, that she too is looking for the inexplicable changes we go through that are reflected, without our knowing, in our faces, bodies, and expressions. “I think photography really lets you examine how a person is changing,” she explains. “When I was photographing Olivier Silva every time I went to see him I thought he hadn’t changed at all. But in the picture you can see the change in his eyes, in his expression.”
Dijkstra’s newer work, the five videos presented in the retrospective, are her most compelling works yet. They are pieces that go well beyond her portraits, as they reveal the living and breathing uncertainty exemplified in the physicality of her subjects. Her videos seem to be the perfect culmination of the painterly aesthetic she employs in her photographs. Video is rooted even more firmly than photography in contemporary technologies and experiences — there are no 17th century Dutch videos — and Dijkstra seems to be modernizing the now dated aesthetic of her Dutch predecessors.
Visiting The Buzz Club in London in the late 1990s, and later Krazyhouse in Liverpool in 2009, Dijkstra has created multichannel videos of young clubgoer’s dancing alone to their favorite music. Watching these youthful adults dance reveals a great deal about their personalities, and we learn more about them than we possibly could in an image without movement or sound. In front of dingy, white walls we watch as young girls sway and grind with a kind of shy sexuality, and as the Krazyhouse boys dance with an uncertain bravado. Projected onto separate walls of the room, Dijkstra isolates her subjects in an almost painful manner, reminding us of how alone they already must feel. While we smile condescendingly at their awkwardness we are also reminded vividly of our own evolution out of it.
In “Annemiek (I Wanna Be With You),” Dijkstra shows a Dutch tween lip-synching to her favorite Backstreet Boys song, in a Warholesque video reminiscent of his famous screen tests. Shy and awkward with braces and the beginnings of acne, Dijkstra’s tween is confidant when lost in the memorized and treasured lyrics of the boy band’s hit. Like all of Dijkstra’s artwork, these videos are powerful statements about the fleeting expressions and sentiments that describe youth, and she elicits in us a kind of nostalgia for the innocent and transitional people we once were.
Dijkstra has so few contemporaries, it seems, because few artists have taken such contemporary subjects and themes and described them with such an old sensibility. Rineke’s peers are in fact not her peers at all. Her artistic kinsman can be found in art history books, in the images of the famous European and Dutch master painters and portraitists. Her work is not derivative, but rather it is with them that she shares a common sensibility and aesthetic. Dijkstra’s photographs and videos have the same haunting presence as paintings by artists like Manet, Rembrandt, Vermeer, and Verspronck. Dijkstra says, “generally I get more out of looking at old paintings. I think the light, as well as the emotional and psychological forces at play are so incredible in those paintings. I prefer the old classics to contemporary art shows.”
Perhaps this explains why a contemporary audience finds her work so refreshingly unique. Imposing slowness upon photography, a notoriously immediate medium, Dijkstra forces her subjects hold their pose for so long that eventually they stop posing, the novelty of the camera forgotten. She says, “I am interested in photographing people at moments when they have dropped all pretense of a pose.” Through technique and medium she seems to create photographs that are almost “more real than reality.” Like Ingres, the French painter who manipulated anatomy in order to create a more perfect two-dimensional reality, Dijkstra makes photographs that transcend the medium of photography.
Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective continues at the Guggenheim (1071 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) continues until October 8.