Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, USA, 2015

Visual art has always been closely associated with storytelling. In Western culture, painting and sculpture initially evolved to illuminate narratives of religion, patronage, and power. Over the centuries, genre scenes, still lifes, and portraits—often created as intricate allegories for religious or historical subject matter—became popular as the narrative role of art expanded. In the 20th century, with the advent of abstraction as a radical break with the past, many artists associated with the avant-garde rejected the figurative and, hence, eliminated explicit narrative content. In the United States and Europe, this tendency culminated during the 1960s and 1970s in Minimal painting and sculpture that foregrounded geometric abstraction and in Post-Minimalism’s examination of process and materiality. The 1980s witnessed a resurgence of figurative art, much of which harked back to expressionistic styles of the 1920s and 1930s.

During the 1990s, a generation of younger artists embraced the concept of storytelling to articulate the politics of identity and difference, investing both abstract and representational forms with narrative content. Storylines opens with key examples from that decade, which serve as thematic anchors and highlight the museum’s own exhibition history. Most of the works on view, however, were created after 2005 and offer an expansive view of the new paradigms for storytelling forged during the past ten years to communicate ideas about race, gender, sexuality, history, and politics, among other trenchant themes.

Bringing together over one hundred works from the Guggenheim’s contemporary collection, Storylines examines the diverse ways in which artists today engage narrative through installation, painting, photography, sculpture, video, and performance. For these artists, storytelling does not necessarily require plots, characters, or settings. Rather, narrative potential lies in everyday objects and materials, and their embedded cultural associations. In projects created through extensive research, acts of appropriation, or performance, the artists in Storylines uncover layers of meaning, turning to individual experience as a means of conveying shared stories, whether real or fictional.

The recent narrative turn in contemporary art cannot be separated from the current age of social media with its reverberating cycles of communication, dissemination, and interpretation. Seemingly every aspect of life is now subject to commentary and circulation via digital text and images. These new narrative frames highlight the roles that each of us can play as both author and reader, foregrounding the fact that meaning is contingent in today’s interconnected and multivalent world. As a means of celebrating this dynamic, the museum has invited writers to contribute reflections—in prose or poetry—on selected works in Storylines. Engaging the rich historical relationship between literature and art, the resulting polyphony signals the diverse interpretive potential that lies within each object on display. Visitors may access these texts using this website, the Guggenheim app, or booklets located throughout the museum.

Nature, geology, technology, and cosmology are common subjects of Katie Paterson’s research-based projects, for which she often collaborates with specialists in astronomy, astrophysics, genetics, and nanotechnology. For Light bulb to Simulate Moon Light (2008), Paterson worked with engineers to take light-meter readings, analyze wavelengths, and finally locate an appropriate surface coating in order to produce a bulb that emits rays approximating the light of a full moon. Paterson commissioned Osram to manufacture 289 bulbs, each lasting 2,000 hours so that the total duration of the whole set corresponds to a lifetime, based on the average human life expectancy of 66 years as estimated in 2008. With each installation, during which the entire set is exhibited with a single bulb burning in the gallery, the lifespan of the artwork is shortened. In its poignant evocation of human mortality through physical objects and the stark deployment of contemporary technologies, the work asserts a sense of the sublime within human parameters.

Listen to podcast