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Connoisseurs of Chaos

John Haber
in New York City

Thomas Struth

I have been staring out my window again when I should be writing. I know: it happens every weekend, every time to I want to encompass in words the idea of a work of art. It would happen even without the snow—or the slyly composed chaos of Thomas Struth's photographs at the Met.

Looking at the swirl

I work too slowly, and I hate the screen. I hide from Word's illusion of a blank page, framed by the dirty, white monitor and again in gray. Then I face its image anyway, just as neatly framed in near monochrome, in the sky. Thomas Struth's Art Institute of Chicago II (Marian Goodman Gallery, 1990)

A blizzard eliminates distractions, like people. It redefines each branch and the edge of every rooftop, and yet they almost vanish behind the swirl of snow. The weather service gives the visibility a deceptive precision, three miles, but from my chair, everything looks white. Up close, half-frozen water covers the window, reiterating and hiding its transparency. The drops have grown much too large for rain, too soft and clear for ice or snow.

Even without the snow, the parking lot out back tempts me to find an unobstructed view. Walls to either side offer an open space. The building across the street cuts that off that opening, but light traffic escapes along the side street to nowhere I can see. The rooftops promise a view above it all, to an imagined infinity, but their parallels converge on a perfectly real skyscraper. It could almost recover focus and symmetry, but for pipes and water towers off in every direction.

I could follow the parallel lines into the scene, if not for the minor details of a glass pane and a nine-story drop. I could look on it all, objective and apart, if I could only separate myself from its geometry or explain where it begins and ends.

Obviously I am seeing my surroundings differently now, after a two-part retrospective at the Met. Upstairs, two small rooms take it to the street, with the street scenes that so stick in my mind. Downstairs, a fittingly maze-like gallery encompasses Struth's career. It moves rapidly to his more well-known work—huge, preternaturally crisp color photographs of plants, families, and people taking in famous art. The smaller show, mostly his early work in black-and-white, makes a great introduction, and it turned my head around.

I had long dismissed Struth. I had seen only his recent photos and their harshly casual compositions. I took their large scale for a cool rehash of late modern painting within quotation marks, as I often had for Jeff Wall. As for the tourists in churches and museums, those people looking at people looking at art looking at people, how glib and how knowing. I was looking too fast for closure and not looking hard enough at the swirl.

Snapshots of Modernism

One can forgive me for seeing the chaos, because Struth intends it. His family portraits border on amateur photography, like the snapshots one's friends never stop sharing. They minimize equally a sense of belonging and individual tensions. People line up as best they can, from left to right. I imagine Struth waving his arm again and again to get everyone into the frame.

These families cling to each other and their possessions. Their lineup, but not only their lineup, hints at symmetry. Gerhard Richter holds his young son, his wife their daughter. Behind him, one sees his painting of a skull, and the photograph recalls its blurred photorealism. To her left a flower evokes Richter's painted portraits, with their appreciation of her youth and beauty. Struth's casual arrangement almost discards it all, but he cannot stop finding more to cast aside.

Struth flirts with conventions of mass culture and high art, but with awareness and with style. Outdoors, he shoots a forest canopy as one big all-over painting. Dense vegetation pushes everywhere, in and out of the frame. The more Struth travels the world, the less he evokes a firm sense of place.

He shoots directly into the sun, giving space between the trees the reality and potential of a drip painting's bare canvas. Again one thinks of Richter. Like his abstractions with a squeegee, Struth coolly mechanizes the Abstract Expressionist brush while reinventing its impulsive beauty. Besides, do forests all look the same, and how should one take the series title, Paradise? One wonders how little remains distinct in an age of globalization.

One wonders even more at one's own untrained eye. The viewer takes on responsibility, too, for the obsessive, controlling symmetry—and for its refusal to add up. If the camera faces the scenes frontally, like in late Modernism, so does the viewer. Struth uses a twin frame to turn one forest into a diptych. One might be seeing it all through a picture window, as much a private possession as Richter's flower.

In practice, I find most of the portraits and landscapes too pat. The first try too hard to flatter the wealthy subjects. The second try too hard to flatter the viewer. However, they make Struth's best photos that much better. They make it easy to understand his fascination with how one views a work of art.

Art history as tourism

The church and museum photos sure look clumsy enough. Think of all those vacation pictures in which other tourists keep getting in the way. At the Vatican, they pack in front of Raphael, his altarpieces, and his Madonnas like subway ads at rush hour. In Venice, they look everywhere but at the S. Zaccaria altarpiece. Their comings and goings almost parody the majesty, timelessness, and introversion of Giovanni Bellini's saints.

Then again, Struth tempts one to imagine the artist at work. He needed a long exposure to pack in those tourists. In Venice's Frari Chapel, they flutter like ghosts in front of the Titian. One thinks again of the skill and art behind Richter's blur. Then, too, almost lost in the immense interior, two seated visitors to the Frari mark the frame's edges. Like the altarpiece, they remain perfectly clear, a reminder of the photograph's own inhuman scale and precision.

Perhaps the subject imposes its own mix of symmetry and chaos, quite as much as the photographer. At the Louvre, visitors drift off to the left. But then, so do the masses huddled on Théodore Géricault's Raft of the Medusa.

At the Art Institute of Chicago, people again mark left and right edges. A woman stands almost dead center, caught in Impressionist Paris in the rain. The three can hardly avoid it. The curators, after all, lines up the paintings to either side of a central partition. Struth calls attention to museums and churches as institutions, while asking whether power, markets, and ideology can ever entirely control art history.

The woman in Chicago stands just to the left of center. She breaks the pattern for Gustave Caillebotte while also balancing his figures coming forward. She looks down the half-empty street to where it converges on a distant building. She could serve as a viewer of Struth's own early street scenes. One might be looking in a mirror and seeing one's back, as in a René Magritte.

Like her, Struth's viewer takes it all in but without standing above it. At the Art Institute, Caillebotte's ornate frame parallels the partition's molding above, Struth's photographic frame, and now the Met's own architecture. Struth obliges one to see past and present, composition and chaos, space and object, viewer and viewed. He poses them not as opposites, but as necessary components of art and human history. It is time that I got back down to street level myself.

Human and inhuman traffic

Since the late 1970s, Struth has photographed cities from Europe to Asia and America. Soho was a crumbling residential and industrial neighborhood back then, not yet a decaying gallery district and shopping mall. Europe was a sprawl of quiet histories. Either way, however, Struth prefers a residential life all but devoid of people.

Struth plants his camera right in the street. The vantage point makes the artist and viewer part of the scene. The dearth of life and hint of danger take one out of it. So does the larger-than-life catalog of the world. Thomas Struth's Düsselstrasse, Düsseldorf (collection of the artist, 1979)

From the middle of the street, buildings to either side exaggerate perspective. So do the frequent lane markers and train or trolley tracks. Often, something at the end of the street fills in the vanishing point, like a church steeple in Düsseldorf. However, one can never quite separate the geometry of vision from the actual convergence of winding streets. One lingers instead over the variety and the details, from facades to the aerials angling every which way. Even the steeple, sticking awkwardly out of a row of housing, lacks an explicit foundation or position in space.

Some streets lead to a dead end, and none stretch on for all that long. Most simply veer off somewhere in the middle distance. They come to an end as casually as a life. Struth shoots the World Trade Center from West Broadway. New Yorkers these days talk about recovering the urban grid after disaster. Struth prefers an obstacle course.

With such a connoisseur of chaos, should one remember most the connoisseur or the chaos? Struth holds out the promise of artistry and the threat of randomness. He offers up urban space as neither closed nor open. He suggests the deep past of an older Europe and the transience of modern life. In other words, he models city streets as public squares.

His more recent street scenes make that model explicit. In keeping with his tourist shots, he takes an urban nexus filled with human and inhuman traffic, and he blows it up to poster size, in full color. People frame the action—while they head out of it.

Marking the edge

Struth owes his documentary impulse to Bernd and Hilla Becher. Year after year, the litany continues of water towers and other remnants of Germany's industrial landscape. They make grids of photos on large sheets of paper. Not long after they began, Jan Dibbets started printing contact sheets as exercises in geometry and ambiguity, leaving one unsure how much he composed in advance.

Struth's urban scenes, like some challenging art installations on the fringes of New York's own urban experience, keep the insatiability but drop the grid. They keep the suggestions of randomness and completeness but forget the formalism. They refuse to settle on objects alone or the present moment. Even objects, like history and institutions, blend into the human traffic.

The turn to color and scale echoes other German photography form the 1990s. Thomas Ruff's larger-than-life head shots translate Chuck Close's debt to Modernism and photography into actual photographs. Andreas Gorsky's architectural photos, such as library interiors, show life itself as a beautiful, chilling catalog of experience. Struth keeps the self-reflection, but in an implicitly human space.

Images of the city have haunted modern art. To Baudelaire and early Modernism, cities isolated individuals in dark places and crippling processes. In guidebooks, cities stand for the old world and, by contrast, the fear of a new one. In the twentieth century, cities became industrial marvels and functional creations. Today, as seen by Patrick O'Hare and others, they may instead mean an abandoned space between sites of suburban sprawl. Struth, strangely enough, hardly distinguishes these understandings.

Minimalism has come to stand for abstraction's detached geometry. All along, however, it was working through to something more postmodern. Site-specific work needed the viewer to complete it. It refused completion anyway, giving way to time and chance. Robert Smithson and others even made a fetish of the word entropy. More recently, feminists and others put history and its politics back into the idea of time.

Struth diverges from the Minimalism of his roots, but he keeps open the question of time, chance, history, and the place of the viewer. Even its lingering nostalgia does not ring entirely false. One can always step outside the scene, so long as one stays aware of having marked its edge along the way. As I get this far, rain is washing away memories of the snow.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Thomas Struth's twin retrospectives, organized by the Dallas Museum of Art, ran at The Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 18, 2003.

 

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