Hiroshi Sugimoto: Optical Allusion @Lisson

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the multi-room gallery space. All of the works are chromogenic prints, made between 2018 and 2023. Each is sized 47×47 inches and is available in an edition of 1+1AP. The show also includes 1 aluminum sculpture and iron base, from 2023, sized 99x19x19 inches in an edition of 1+1AP, and the apparatus the artist used to control the light in the photographs. (Installation shots below.)

Selections from this body of work were also shown at Fraenkel Gallery in 2020 (here).

Comments/Context: As Hiroshi Sugimoto ages into his mid-70s, he has become increasingly centered on the essential questions in his art. The large scale passing of time (as considered in architecture), the definitions (and beginnings) of human consciousness, the invisible realities of seeing and light, the unseen rhythms and shapes of science and mathematics, and other similarly expansive ideas have become the focal points of his multivalent artistic practice, and he has investigated and explored each one with measured patience and considered richness. With little left to prove to the art world, he seems free to chase subtle but fundamental artistic questions that don’t give up their truths particularly easily.

A quick trip through Sugimoto’s back catalog of photographic projects reveals a repeated interest in unraveling ways of seeing, probing the properties of light, and trying to visualize of the fleeting or the altogether invisible. The long-exposure theater images, the bisected seascapes, and the blurred architecture studies all wrestle with the properties and processes of seeing, and his more recent images of electricity and mathematical volumes push that conceptual exploration even deeper. So it isn’t at all unexpected that Sugimoto might be inspired by Isaac Newton’s ground-breaking 1704 Opticks: or A Treatise on the Reflections, Refractions, Inflexions and Colours of Light in his own search for further clues and insights about seeing.

In that book, Newton details an important experiment, where he used a prism to divide a stream of light into the seven-color rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) that we all now know and recognize. But Sugimoto wasn’t satisfied with the strict discreteness of that centuries-old experimental outcome and wondered what exactly happened to the light in the transition zones between the individual colors. So he built his own prism mechanism (which is on view in this show), and used a mirror to fan the projected light out even wider, across a white plaster wall in his studio, concentrating on the in between zones and “disregarded intracolors”. He did his experiments annually over fifteen years, methodically redirecting and dividing the winter light on the wall at sunrise, and taking Polaroids of color fragments of the resulting spectrums.

In our digital age, we’ve become accustomed to what a color gradient looks like, particularly one that has been generated algorithmically or computationally, like the ones in Cory Arcangel’s early Photoshop experiments (which, by the way, would make a fascinating pairing with these Sugimoto images). Sugimoto’s pictures are analog (first Polaroids, that were then scanned and printed as chromogenic prints), meaning that the individual particles of light were being recorded essentially as they occurred (at the resolution of the film/photographic paper), rather than extrapolated mathematically as a grid of pixels. His resulting gradients (or perhaps ombrés?) feel much more fluid and organic than any “perfect” computerized gradient we might remember, with shifting areas of wandering light and dark and color that doesn’t quite resolve – they almost feel alive, as much as something this intensely abstract might possibly take on such properties.

After some behind the scenes enlargement, cropping, and rotation, Sugimoto’s “Opticks” take shape as large scale square format abstractions, generally oriented with the color transition happening from top-to-bottom or bottom-to-top, not sideways. In many cases, this creates the appearance of a horizon-like bisecting line which divides the color areas, not unlike the compositional order of his seascapes. In some pictures, when the upper half of the image is dark and a color field approaches the midpoint, it almost looks like the color has a contour like the subtle curve of a long vista, with the colors drifting and merging as they approach the darkness, almost like glare off the sea or a sunrise/sunset. In others, the color seems to dissipate as it approaches the black, softening the edge point and dissolving like a cloud of pure pigment.

If Sugimoto’s goal was to document the ethereal transition points between colors, he’s certainly done so, in a variety of ways. From afar, several prints look like solid color blocks of red, yellow, or blue, but up close, the edge areas of these blocks are shading in one way or another, each picking up hints and echoes of its color neighbors. Many other images read as almost black from across the gallery, only to be discovered to be a bit green, red, or blue up close, the colors wafting through the darkness in some highly diluted fashion, like faint light or subtle mist. And in a few images, the colors are more stacked, with transitions from red to yellow (through orange) or green to orange (through yellow) collapsed into one compressed space. Each image could be considered a “portrait” of a singular color moment, which is perhaps why they have been presented as unique works (each with an AP).

Given that Sugimoto hadn’t really worked in color before this project, he’s teased a wide range of depths and moods out of these abstract color fields. Some of course feel elementally cool and aloof, like facts. But many others seem to bubble and throb with unexplained almost seductive energy, like zones where certainty breaks down just a bit, drawing us into an area of infinitely undefined approximation. It is these pictures that feel almost magnetic in this installation, pulling the viewer into their mysteries, and likely providing the kind of durable interest that keeps someone looking at the same image for years upon years without ever really coming to its end. The best of these studies offer no definitive answers, even though that might have been exactly what Sugimoto originally set out to document. Or maybe it is the stubborn, quietly awe-inspiring uncertainty of the color that is in the end the subject, however scientific and precise we might hope to be.

Collector’s POV: The photographs in this show are priced at $250000 each. Sugimoto’s work is readily available at auction, at a variety of price points. His Time Exposed portfolio can generally be had at auction for between $3000 and $11000. Smaller individual prints (in the range of 20×24) typically range between $10000 and $90000. And his largest prints (seascapes, wax portraits, and architecture) have recently been available starting at roughly $100000 and continuing up to over $1 million.

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