by Len Kowitz
The Lupe Murcheson Curator of Contemporary Art
May 12-August 18, 2002
Many photography enthusiasts would enjoy the Thomas Struth retrospective at the Dallas Museum of Art. The exhibition, organized Charles Wylie at The Lupe Murcheson Curator of Contemporary Art at the Dallas Museum of Art. Thomas Struth was born in Geldem, Germany in 1954. He studied at the Kun-stakademie, Dusseldorf from 1973-1980. From 1993-1996 he was a professor of photography at Stallichan Hochschule fur Gestaltang, Karlsruhe. He was awarded Spectrum International Prize for Photography, Stiftung Niedersachsen. He lives in Dusseldorf.
The exhibition is a large retrospective of Struth's oeuvre — with 100 pieces covering a time span from 1977 to the most recent work done in 2001. Struth's work in the exhibition can be divided into four main categories: the urban landscape, the museum series, portraits and the paradise series. The collaboration between Wylie and Struth in the organization and sequencing of the show, the juxtaposing of images helps the viewer see the true depth and resonance of Struth's art.
There is much to learn by looking at Struth's work. While his background is from academia, he has done commercial work as well. He helps bridge those two seemingly different worlds. The early work is a series of black-and-white street scenes. Struth chose to place the large format camera in the middle of the streets he was looking at. Working early in the morning when the scene was vacant of pedestrian traffic, Struth makes documents that at first glance appear rather ordinary. However, I saw the clear influence of his teachers Bernd and Hilda Becher. The work is tightly composed, the light falling on the scene does nothing more than illuminate the objects, it does not create a mood or a feeling for the place photographed. These pictures are almost clinical in their appearance.
Wylie sequenced the exhibition in such a way that the viewer doesn't have time to consider the small pieces in their totality. On entering the exhibit this viewer was immediately drawn into the photograph Pantheon, Rome, a large (76 1/4" x 541/4") framed (93 3/4" x 72 1/4"), view of the inside of the structure. His thoughtful presentation of the image creates a depth and luminosity that takes the viewer from simply looking at a photograph to actually feeling a part of the picture. The sense of being in the space was very real. Struth has clearly found a way to draw the viewer into the scene he photographs. His use of color and the size of his prints make each one an experience in itself.
The exhibition takes us back and forth between very early work and much more recent work. The viewer is given an opportunity to compare and contrast the change that has occurred over time. At first we are left wondering what is this artist trying to say with these vastly different pictures. But this is just the prelude to the larger and more complete show we are about to see. When I first began to look at these images, my curiosity was peaked by that very question — What's going on here? Then I turned a corner and came face to face with Shibuya Crossing, Tokyo, 1991 (54 1/2" x 77 3/4"). I was there standing right where the camera had been placed, and I was the ultimate voyeur of the scene. People passed back and forth, going about their business and never noticed me or that I was examining every detail of their appearance.
I turned another corner and I was in the Art Institute of Chicago where the wall label told me "Strath's Museumphotographs investigate the role museums play in a culture that has difficulty determining the difference between display and reverence." It wasn't hard for me; I was there in the scene and in awe of the way Thomas Struth was taking me on a journey.
The Paradise series was just that — a little slice of heaven. The scale of the photographs and the mounting of the print on plexi creates a depth that almost becomes three dimensional. The scale of the picture, when viewed from across the room, gives this viewer a feeling that with one more step I could cross into the scene.
The portrait series, which are photographs mostly of friends and family, includes a portrait of another of the artist's early influences, the family of Gerhard Richter. Casually composed in the Richter living room, the family is very at ease with my presence and allows me full access to their personal appearance. As a fan of Richter's painting, I was glad to have the opportunity to visit with him.
Struth takes us on further journeys to many unexpected places. We visited the Yangtse Gorge in China, Tien An Men in Bejing, the Milan Cathedral, Las Vegas, Nevada, and Notre Dame in Paris as well as Times Square, New York. For most of my adult life I have lived with the assumption that "size doesn't matter." After spending the better part of two hours at the Dallas museum looking at Thomas Strath's photographs, it has become clear to me that I have been living with a false illusion. The way Struth seduced this observer is with subject, presentation and technical execution. Struth has taken rather traditional photography to an entirely new level. He has photographed subjects many of us take for granted; and through the use of scale and color, Struth has made the viewer a part of the photograph in a way I have never seen before. Consequently I have to conclude that in the case of Thomas Struth, size does indeed matter.
I would like to recommend the beautifully produced catalogue sponsored by the Neuberger Berman Foundation. The catalogue contains excellent essays on Struth's work by Charles Wylie, Maria Morris Hambourg, Douglas Eklund and Anne Goldstein. The catalogue is available from the Dallas Museum of Art and is published by Yale University Press. I also recommend the article in the May 2002 issue of Art Forum magazine by editor Daniel Birnham and the interview in the June 2002 issue of Art in America with Bernd and Hilla Becher conducted by Ulf Erdmarm Ziegler. The interview helped me gain a greater understanding of an important early influence on Struth and added to my enjoyment of his work.
After Dallas, the show travels to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.
LEN KOWITZ IS A PHOTOGRAPHER AND PRESIDENT OF THE BOARD OF DIRECTORS OF HOUSTON CENTER FOR PHOTOGRAPHY.