Hiroshi Sugimoto, Past Presence @Marian Goodman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 22 black-and-white gelatin silver prints, in white mattes and framed in black, exhibited on light gray walls in the north, south and middle galleries. They are dated as follows: 2013 (5), 2014 (13), 2016 (2), and 2018 (2). All of the prints are sized 58 ¾ x 47 inches (or the reverse) and are available in editions of 5. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Hiroshi Sugimoto has bridged the crumbling walls between classical photography and conceptual art as smoothly as any artist of his generation. Both sides of the art world divide respect him and have claimed him as one of their own. Photography departments and collectors venerate his fastidious craftsmanship. He has upheld the values of the black-and-white fine print, relying on 19th century tools and methods (the 8×10 or 4×5 camera on a tripod, and uncommonly long exposures) in order to demonstrate, especially in his seascapes and movie screens, that the simplest “straight” photographs can transport viewers into profound meditative states. Except for a series on electricity, his pictures have never been aggressive or flashy.

At the same time, curators of contemporary art have embraced him as a photographer whose projects explore philosophic and scientific ideas. His natural history museum dioramas and wax museum portraits wittily question, without resorting to computer manipulation, whether realism can be distinguished easily, if at all, from contrivance. If his photographs are serene, his thinking about photography is searching and unpredictable. Fascinated by riddles of time, he has likened photographs to fossils, light impressed into a surface that forms part of a historical record. Along with the Bechers, he is one of the few photographers routinely exhibited in surveys of post-minimalism and of recent photographic practices.

Past Presence is another effort by Sugimoto to enlist the tools of traditional photography and exaggerate them in making conceptual works of art. As in his previous series Architecture, he plays with the focus of the camera lens in order to create soft, blurry, eidetic images of recognizable subjects. Whereas those had previously been icons of architecture, from the chapel at Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower to the Seagram Building and the R.M. Schindler House, the source of the new series are dozens of paintings and sculptures owned by the Museum of Modern Art, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and the Beyeler Foundation: Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe; Johns’ Flag; Picasso’s Les Démoiselles d’Avignon; Matisse’s Dance (1); Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie; Brancusi’s Maiastra and Mlle. Pogany; Duchamp’s Fountain as well as his Bicycle Wheel and Rotary Demisphere. All of these masterworks are photographed in black-and-white, and in situ within the museum setting.

One of the drawbacks of conceptual art is that it’s only as interesting as the ideas behind it. If your premise is commonplace or fuzzy-minded, your pictures likely will be, too. Sugimoto’s misguided belief that by rendering these objects in soft focus he will enhance their meaning, or somehow take us back to the germinal idea, seems to be the source of the problem with both series. Earlier this year he explained the blurring in Architecture “as an attempt on my part to recreate the initial inspiration as it first emerged in the mind of the architect…the original ideal form lies dormant within every great building…. At the early stages of design, that ideal form appears inchoate and indistinct in the architect’s mind. That is why I felt it should appear blurred and out of focus.”

I have never designed a building, and Sugimoto has, so perhaps you should take his word over mine. But trying to imagine what artistic inspiration might look like, through the lens of a camera, seems to me a fool’s errand, as cheesy Hollywood bio-pics have proven year after year. His reliance on blur to convey the seed of thought is a mistake. Picturing an “ideal form” of a building or a painting as an embryonic sonogram, an outline without distinct features, is one of the hoariest of pictorial clichés. It is simply not true that looking at a Matisse in soft shades of gray rather than high-definition color brings us closer to the moment of its genesis. If anything, the opposite is the case. These photographs violate the intentions of the artists, who never imagined their images would be published out-of-register. Why he has chosen famous works of art isn’t clear either; obscure ones would have served his purpose just as well.

The Goodman press release is no help in trying to explain his method and only adds another layer of obfuscation to his mysticism: “Blurring the focal point channels the viewer to arrive at the purity, intent and innovation wrought by each representation, to contemplate the way we perceive and receive history.”

The five Giacomettis in the main gallery—L’Homme qui marche, Dog, Tall Figure III, The Nose, Grande Femme III—illustrate the shortcomings of his approach. Although Sugimoto has slightly varied the backgrounds behind a couple of the sculptures, they are not allowed to stand out from each other as individual pieces.

Sugimoto has every right to remake the history of art in his own image. The tradition of artists who have appropriated paintings and photographs by others as their subject includes not only wisenheimer post-modernists, such as Sherrie Levine and Richard Pettibone, but Picasso and Lichtenstein.

Sugimoto’s versions of Duchamp or Brancusi don’t do anything to the originals except envelope them in a romantic fog that removes all their rough edges and idiosyncrasies. They are stamped in a uniform style—transformed into Sugimotos—that makes no distinction between, say, a work of art by Joseph Kosuth and one by René Magritte. It’s as if everything here had been printed with gouache and velvet rollers.

Sugimoto has been an artist of such uncommon intelligence and restlessness, I expect that his misbegotten “blur” phase is an anomaly.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $100000 to under $500000, depending on the place in the edition. 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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