Rineke Dijkstra, Self-portrait, Marnixbad, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, June 19, 1991, color photograph, 24 7/16 x 20 1/2".

Rineke Dijkstra, Self-portrait, Marnixbad, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, June 19, 1991, color photograph, 24 7/16 x 20 1/2".

Rineke Dijkstra

Rineke Dijkstra, Self-portrait, Marnixbad, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, June 19, 1991, color photograph, 24 7/16 x 20 1/2".

ENTERING RINEKE DIJKSTRA’S SURVEY at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, one was greeted by an arresting image of a young woman standing in a bathing suit and cap, wet, looking exhausted after a swimming workout. The solitary figure is centered before a nondescript background and addresses the lens with a locked, frontal gaze. Although the photograph undoubtedly required significant planning—shot as it was with a large-format camera and set-up lighting—it nevertheless has the air of a candid snap, seeming to capture the decisive moment when physical exertion overtakes the niceties of social performance. Dijkstra’s iconic Self-portrait, Marnixbad, Amsterdam, the Netherlands, June 19, 1991 fittingly inaugurated this first American retrospective of the fifty-two-year-old Dutch artist—not only because it pictures the artist herself, but because it holds many of the formal, conceptual, and strategic threads that would wend through her practice over the subsequent two decades. Already present here is Dijkstra’s preference for symmetrical composition, her fascination with the liminal state between performed and unguarded self-presentation, her almost anthropological approach to youthful subjects, and her unmistakable aesthetic, equally clinical and pictorial. SF moma’s comprehensive and satisfying exhibition, co-organized by Sandra S. Phillips and Jennifer Blessing, traced Dijkstra’s unwavering adherence to this narrow set of interests from this early image to the present.

If a sense of consistency rather than development pervaded the show, it was perhaps due to Dijkstra’s method of establishing predetermined parameters within which each work unfolds. This is most clearly manifest in the series in which the artist photographs the same people at regular intervals over extended periods. Such works—like the portraits of Israeli youth before and after induction into the military, or those of Olivier Silva, a young man Dijkstra photographed over his three-year career in the French Foreign Legion—picture transformations in which both natural and social forces inscribe themselves on the subjects’ faces. Some changes are immediately apparent, like a radical haircut and new uniform. Others become evident only over time, such as Olivier’s physiognomic development from boy to man and, more poignantly, a certain hardening of his comportment. Dijkstra’s signal project in this regard is “Almerisa,” 1994–, an ongoing series now comprising eleven photographs of its eponymous subject as she evolves from a six-year-old Bosnian refugee to a young mother, fully assimilated into Dutch culture. Rightly given their own gallery, the large-scale “Almerisa” prints were a highlight of the show, at once both a culturally specific document and a family photo album.

How such photographs, which make up the bulk of Dijkstra’s production, ultimately function as art is a complex question. At first blush, the images can seem like old-school portraiture, which proposes that interior essences can be rendered in external appearances. Or, more cynically, they might smack of photography’s market ascendancy in the 1990s, when bigger and more colorful seemed better. Yet on closer scrutiny, Dijkstra’s marriage of photography’s social documentary history with her extended commitment to investigating social performativity evinces the work’s critical position. Indeed, Dijkstra seems more interested in how her sitters compose themselves before her camera than in capturing their “individuality.” This exhibition, filled with luscious, inviting, and immersive color prints of equally good-looking sitters, gave me the sense that the artist has her cake and eats it, too: Her typological conceit ironically provides a “safe” space for humanist pursuits. If Dijkstra’s work sometimes flirts with essentialism and sentimentality, ultimately it maintains an edge that cuts the saccharine taste. The strategy is one that satisfies both a critical audience that expects discourse and a more populist one that prefers beautiful pictures.

Dijkstra’s six videos, all but one of which were included here, are equally entertaining and heady. Like her photographs, these works mainly focus on young people at key stages of physical transformation and social indoctrination. The four-channel video installation The Krazyhouse (Megan, Simon, Nicky, Philip, Dee), Liverpool, UK, 2009, shows a sequence of five teenage club-goers dancing alone before a stationary camera. In one notable scene, an irrepressible girl (Dee) loses the beat while the DJ mixes two tracks. She waits through the transition, smiling somewhat uncomfortably, and begins bopping again when she recognizes a familiar tune. Her relief perfectly encapsulates the cyclical logic and enjoyment of pop. It also bespeaks many of the concerns of Dijkstra’s work in general, in which we see her subjects perfect their performances within the familiar territory of the rehearsed. Witnessing this effect play out in real time as Dee begins to lip-synch and sway her hips again was one of the show’s most exhilarating and terrifying moments.

This conflict between modeling and difference is a persistent, pressing issue within Dijkstra’s work. Across media, she prompts us to wonder how public identifications—that gallery of surfaces that make up spectacle’s preformed repository—shape, and maybe even free, our own faces, manners, and selves. As I left the show, the memory of Dee pointing to herself while mouthing Mary J. Blige’s infectious mantra “my life’s just fine” endured. At first I was smiling with her and humming along, but soon I began to wonder what it meant for me (or anyone) to speak the pop diva’s personal truth in the first person.

“Rineke Dijkstra: A Retrospective” travels to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, June 29–Oct. 3.

Jordan Kantor is an artist and an associate professor of painting and humanities at California College of the Arts in San Francisco.