Thomas Struth @Marian Goodman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 16 large scale photographs, framed in light grey and unmatted, and hung against white/light grey walls in the North gallery, the North viewing room, the conference room, and the South gallery.

The following works are included in the show:

  • made at CERN: 8 inkjet prints, 2019, 2021, roughly sized 26×35, 47×35, 60×123, 76×52, 67×93, 70×99, 71×122, 106×91 inches, in editions of 6
  • from Family Portraits: 4 inkjet prints, 2020, 2021, roughly sized 28×36, 37×48, 43×56, 60×80 inches, in editions of 6
  • from Nature and Politics: 3 inkjet prints, 2021, roughly sized 53×70, 61×82, 84×177 inches, in editions of 6
  • from Nature and Politics: 1 gelatin silver print, 2021, roughly sized 47×36, in an edition of 6

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: As the months of 2022 slowly click by, we’re arriving at a transitional moment in the art world, where we are now consistently seeing how artists of all kinds responded to the past several years of the pandemic. Many turned inward or worked alone; others tried to make sense of the changing rhythms of life during lockdowns and quarantines; and still others took the opportunity to head off in new directions.

As seen in this powerhouse show, Thomas Struth seems to have used the time to sharpen his eye. Not that Struth’s eye needed any sharpening exactly – the German photographer has been making extremely precise work since his days at the Kunstakademie, Düsseldorf, back in the 1970s. Depending on how we measure the periods and projects in his long career, he’s already had three or four separate waves of innovation, when just one is enough to make a durable artistic mark. Now in his late 60s, Struth has already achieved most of what any photographer might hope – touring museum retrospectives at the right places, hefty catalogs and photobooks, memorable single images and series, and the successful application of his unique perspective to multiple photographic genres. Struth isn’t an artist who needs a second (or fourth or sixth) wind, but this show of new work has the exacting freshness of just such a blast of new momentum.

Struth’s particular response to the pandemic seems to have taken him down two separate paths – one continuing his work at sites of technology, the other pushing him back to family portraits and landscapes, a pair of genres he had already conquered (and seemingly left behind) years ago. And while Struth might well be known for his cool deadpan gaze, each one of these bodies of new work takes on nuances of fuller emotion than we might have noticed before. It’s as if the pandemic clarified the priorities of an artist who was already exactingly clear.

Struth has been making views of technology for more than a decade now, visiting nuclear power plants, space centers, physics research centers, and engineering schools all over the world. At each place, he has been drawn to scenes of dense technological complexity, where thick bunches of cables, wires, and pipes connect all kinds of incomprehensible (to a non-expert) technical systems. His pictures have consistently been acutely sharp, drawing us into the all-over expanse of technical detail (we can seemingly explore them endlessly, finding little pieces to puzzle over), even when the scale of the work going on is immense. The technology on view is both highly controlled and seemingly the opposite of perfect – it appears convoluted more often than not – and yet, it’s getting the job done.

The message seems to be that as scientists search for answers to increasingly difficult questions, the support technologies and systems that they create to aid them in that search become similarly unknowable. Struth offers us a window into this opaque world – in a sense, satisfying our curiosity – but the realities his photographs document often feel out of reach, the scale and complexity of the technical structures taking on the air of astonishing spectacle.

Between 2019 and 2021 (so both just before and during the pandemic), Struth got access to CERN, the world’s largest particle physics lab, located along the border between France and Switzerland and home to the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). To study the properties of subatomic particles – the building blocks of the universe – CERN has developed an impressive array of accelerators, magnets, detectors, telescopes, and other scientific technologies, and these are the subject of Struth’s photographs. To “see” and test the world at that tiny scale, an almost unbelievably massive amount of support equipment is required.

Multiple experiments are run at different locations along the LHC, and Struth finds visual grandeur at ALICE, where quark-gluon plasma forms are being studied. His squared-off image looks straight down the center of a circular tunnel, somehow coincidentally colored in the artistic primaries of red, yellow, and blue. The print in the show is hung in such a way that the blue center of the circle is set at eye level, drawing us down into the vortex of technology. Even with all the surrounding complexity in the picture, the essence feels entirely elemental – we are looking, just like the scientists are, and the discoveries are as yet unknown.

Several other large views bring us inside various test areas, where stacked technologies reach to the roof. All of these immense pictures somehow feel cramped, with repeated horizontals that break up the space, or low ceilings festooned with cables and pipes that drop down on the absent workers below. Again, we are confused by all we see – things look haphazard, but somehow methodical; improvised in a tinkering kind of way, but also intensely precise. Lone desk chairs signal the sometime presence of humans, but mostly, these places feel highly engineered, with form driven entirely by practical function.

All of this seems entirely in line with the way Struth has approached such places over the past decade, so what’s unexpected is the subtle shift in mood that comes from two of the photographs in the show. One image (from 2019) asks us to consider not technological grandeur, but obsolescence. In it a decommissioned detector, similar in circular form to the ALICE structure, sits outside under grey skies, its once glorious display of intricacy now forgotten in the parking lot, certainly replaced by something newer, bigger, and faster. This acknowledgement of the debris of progress is then given even fuller form in a small picture from 2021, made in the thick of the pandemic. Here Struth looks down at the floor, where scraps of metal, wire, and other leftovers have accumulated into a dense pile of “dreck” (as the image is titled); what’s unexpected is that this junk is just as complex as the more ordered systems depicted nearby, and similarly has its own kind of chaotic beauty. Given its COIVD context, the dirty pile feels like it has its own self-replicating (but unknowable) structure, just like a virus. Seen together, the two pictures offer a little less embedded optimism than we’re used to seeing from Struth, as if he’s quietly acknowledging the inevitable birth and death cycle of technology.

The rest of the images in this show were made during the pandemic, and find Struth returning to subject matter themes he has explored previously, but with a new vantage point. Given the heft of so many of Struth’s best known images, it’s easy to overlook his strengths as a portraitist; that would be a mistake, as he’s made many superlative portraits (particularly of family groups), and the four intimate pictures on view in the conference room here are as strong as any that he’s made. Perhaps the constraints of the pandemic (or the fearful moments of those times) brought Struth back to documenting those close to him, as all of these pictures capture family (Struth’s brother and his family) and close friends from Berlin. His formula is both entirely rigid and somehow unadorned – groups stand in their own homes, in natural light, with little or no posing (aside from standing in front of the camera). Struth’s images are hyper attentive, almost urgent, with each subject looking straight into the camera – he consistently sees them with honesty and affection, and with a timeless sense of presence and clarity. As a tight group, these portraits are understated knockouts – sparse, reserved, pared down to essentials, and wondrously personal.

Struth also turned back to the land during the pandemic, a subject he hasn’t wrestled with much since his towering jungle studies some twenty years ago. Three of his new landscapes are muted snow scenes, where thickets of trees and underbrush have been covered with new fallen whiteness; seen through the lens of the pandemic, their mood is wary, almost threatened, but softened a bit by the snow. The largest of the three covers the entire back wall of the South gallery, and at almost 15 feet wide, feels very much like the expansive 18th century battle scenes found on the walls of the Louvre. Compositionally, the dark angles of the trees, the clumping of the brush into distinct sections, and the width of the white sky come together in surprisingly frenetic harmony. Two somewhat smaller forest scenes are found on nearby walls, with closer in views of gnarled trunks and reaching limbs, with hints of mossy green on the undersides of the branches, breaking up the tilt toward monochromatic winter tones. All three have a sense of frozen motion, with emphatic lines implying movement (and maybe even optimism) amid the frosty silence. And again, Struth seems to have found a new pandemic-inspired path into a genre he had largely abandoned; we’re not in “paradise” anymore (the title of his rainforest images), but perhaps in a place with more nuance and muted tremor in its emotions.

Tucked into the back corner of the landscape room is an intriguing outlier for Struth – a tightly framed black-and-white image of rock, made in Maine in 2021. What’s unexpected about this photograph is just how unstable it is – the rock seems to melt and shimmer like flowing water. It’s a picture to get lost in, and maybe as a symbol of the pandemic moment, that’s just what Struth intended. The ground is seemingly shifting as we watch with our own eyes, nature enveloping us but still capable of startling unpredictability.

What’s so impressive about this show is not only that there are essentially no misfires anywhere, but that Struth has adapted himself to the rhythms of the pandemic with such grace. Each project follows its own natural trajectory, but is now given additional resonance by the backdrop of the virus and Struth’s empathetic attention to its personal impacts. At this point in his career, he has nothing left to prove to anyone, except perhaps himself. This show delivers a deliberately measured and restrained artistic response to the events of the day, and in returning to basic principles, finds they’re as potent and powerful as ever.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between €30000 and €350000, based on size. Struth’s photographs are routinely available in the secondary markets, in both the Contemporary Art and Photography auctions, with prices ranging from roughly $5000 to past $1000000 (one of Struth’s prints of the Pantheon topped $1.8M in 2015), with large, well known pieces consistently fetching six figures.

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