Catherine Opie: Photography Review

Cynics in the art world say that the surefire path to stardom is a succès de scandale to get on the leader board, followed by a quick switch to suitable-for-home-or-office baubles for collectors. Modern art history seems to prove the point. Picasso's fractured cubism was shocking at first, but when within a decade he ramped up the pretty colors, everybody wanted one. The first pop Warhols—those blowups of cheap magazine ads and Campbell's soup cans—were homely and disconcerting. Then, in an instant, came Liz, Mao and Leonardo, and with them the greatest "business artist" of all time. People gasped at Damien Hirst's pickled shark, then watched him encrust a skull with diamonds and sell it for $100 million. Just last week Hirst auctioned off his new stuff at the venerable Sotheby's in London and took in double that.

Are we watching the same phenomenon at work, on a much smaller scale, in photographer Catherine Opie, whose retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York opens Sept. 26? Opie's first gallery solo in 1991 featured headshots of lesbians in facial drag: fake mustaches and beards. Then came the even more in-your-face self-portraits, with Opie's back cut into with a bleeding, childlike drawing. But in the blink of an eye, it seemed, the shocking, masochistic Opie disappeared. She started showing elegant black-and-white photos of freeway overpasses and haunting studies of empty strip malls. Opie now travels the country doing handsome portraits of high-school footballers that their parents would probably be overjoyed to show to the neighbors. What gives?

Opie isn't the first artist whose work raises the issue of how and when radicalism morphs into something mainstream. Back in the late 18th century, William Wordsworth wrote politically radical poems about the French Revolution. But in "The Excursion" (1814), one of the poem's protagonists subscribes to the then conventional English view that Britain ought to rule the world. In our day, Jonathan Lethem's success with such stunningly quirky novels as "Gun, With Occasional Music" has given way to best sellers like "Motherless Brooklyn." And movie director David Gordon Green, a critics' darling with his Terrence Malick-influenced "George Washington," has found a broader audience with "Pineapple Express."

Going from cutting edge to marble ledge isn't merely a matter of aging into orthodoxy—or selling out. The matter has much more to do with suddenly being on a public stage, where what you create will be seen or read, instead of the giddy but long-shot "just might." When a real live publisher, studio or museum delivers unto you readers or viewers you didn't have before, your palms get a little sweaty. This audience is by nature larger and more diverse. You feel obligated to give them something a little more accessible, a little more mainstream than the eccentricities that got you noticed in the first place.

Sometimes, too, a cultural moment passes. When Opie showed her portraits in the early 1990s, the "culture wars" were roaring and identity politics ruled the art world. She knows that the battle now takes place in a much larger world, where a major artistic vision is needed to pull it all together. Opie's talent and range—from affectionate pictures of a prickly subculture to subtly unflinching glances at the rest of America—suggest that she possesses it. But the final proof will lie in whether she can regain some of the defiant attitude that first brought her to our attention.