Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City
Through May 14

“Carrie Mae Weems is finally getting the star treatment that has largely eluded her,” said Ellen Gamerman in The Wall Street Journal. The 60-year-old photographer had a banner year in 2013, winning a MacArthur “genius” grant and watching as this major retrospective, now at New York’s Guggenheim, began a tour of five American cities. But before Weems felt the embrace of the establishment, she clashed with it. Harvard University once threatened to sue her over “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” a 1995–96 series in which she appropriated and altered daguerreotypes that a 19th-century Harvard scientist had commissioned in order to make the case that black people were not fully human. Weems dared the university to take her to court, though, and the school relented. Today, Weems’s blood-red versions of the photographs belong to Harvard because the school decided to purchase the entire series for its art collection.

Few artists have illuminated America’s color and class divides “as subtly and incisively,” said Holland Cotter in The New York Times. Weems’s first major series, “Family Pictures and Stories” (1978–84), captured her relatives in snapshot-like photos that collectively offered a rebuttal to a famous 1965 government report that blamed the deterioration of African-American life on family instability. No matter how politically charged her subsequent work has been, Weems “puts a high value on formal beauty”—as she proved in a series of studio photographs she made of models enacting stereotypes, such as Black Man Holding Watermelon. Given Weems’s reach, it’s a shame that the Guggenheim has halved the size of the original retrospective, treating her as if she were “a secondary, niche attraction.”

The work at times can “tip into stridency,” said Ariella Budick in the Financial Times. Throughout the 1987–88 series about stereotypes, Weems seems “trapped by the clichés she’s trying to dismantle.” Elsewhere, her anger “dissipates into fuzzy generalities”—as in the many self-portraits that show her with her back turned as she gazes at monuments of European culture. At her best, though, Weems manages a “perfect synthesis of autobiography, appropriation, politics, and sheer enchantment.” In her “Kitchen Table Series,” from 1990, the artist plays a lead role in a semiautobiographical story she tells via images of a life being lived around a table lit by a single overhead lamp. The series “mixes confessional ferocity with clinical coolness,” and the effect is startling.