Thomas Struth: New Works @Marian Goodman

JTF (just the facts): A total of 19 color photographs, on view in the North and South galleries.

In the North Galleries (main room and adjacent viewing room), there are 3 chromogenic prints and 7 inkjet prints on view, made in 2016 and 2017. These works are framed in light grey with thin grey borders and hung against white walls. The works in the main room are face mounted to Plexiglas, so their surface is glossy; the works in the viewing room are not face mounted and so have a matte finish. Physical sizes range from roughly 29×43 to 80×150 inches, and all of the prints are available in editions of 6.

In the South Galleries, there are 9 inkjet prints on view, made in 2016 and 2017. These works are framed in white with wider white borders, and are hung against light grey walls (including a partition blocking the doorway). Physical sizes range from roughly 11×7 to 50×75 (or reverse) and all of the prints are available in editions of 6.

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Thomas Struth has been making science and technology pictures for the last handful of years, and with each new set of images, he has pushed us further into a realm where scale and complexity reach a kind of tipping point. Initial images of robots, drones, experiments, and server farms have given way to the immensity of steel mills and container ports and the post-human power of medical facilities, each engrossingly large scene meticulously documenting a tangled mess of tubes, cables, wires, and other increasingly inexplicable forms of shininess. With his signature cool-eyed precision, he has pulled back the curtain on true marvels of man-made innovation, and simultaneously forced us to engage with thornier questions concerning their baffling complexity and immediate obsolescence.

Struth’s newest works continue this conceptual progression, and then surprisingly seem to hit an emotional wall, where his simmering frustration with technology (and its makers) seems to seep to the surface. So the show is set up as two decidedly separate parts, perhaps as an end and a beginning.

His new technology pictures are among his best from this series, in that they center in on monumental subjects that evoke nearly equal parts astonishment and befuddlement. His all-over blue images taken at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab at the Johnson Space Center in Houston document the full-scale models of various space stations which have been submerged in a massive swimming pool. While the staggering facilities allowing scientists, engineers, and astronauts to do work and test things on the ground before they get into the unforgiving environment of actual space, Struth has captured these locations at moments of extreme quiet, where the water is so still that the overhead lights reflect as perfect arrays of bright pinpricks. The largest work on view gives us a wide spanning view of the whole facility (complete with its international cooperation flag decorations), while three overhead bird’s eye views look down at particular stations, allowing us to revel in their panels, hatches, and sectional architecture. The empty silence is almost spooky in these images, the vibrant blue of the water acting like a boldly tinted filter.

A pair of images from a high voltage laboratory at Siemens have more of an eye for the elemental shapes of geometric abstraction. The experiments here seem to have been made with high technology Tinker Toys (the setups are rigged with balls, pipes, circular discs, and tubes painted in primary colors), and Struth frames the room as a cascade of connections against a diamond-patterned (presumably sound-proof) wall. A second pair of images moves in much closer, pushing us inside the technical guts of follow-ons to the US/German GRACE satellites. Here Struth confronts us with dense layers of wiring and shiny insulation, his squared-off vantage point keeping everything in perfect alignment.

The original GRACE satellites measured various environmental conditions, gathering data concerning Earth’s gravity as well as changes in ice and water reservoirs across the surface of the planet, and at least to my eye, herein lies a clue to where Struth’s mindset might have started to change. His pictures of these satellites document the enormity of the human efforts to understand our environment and the technical brilliance with which those activities have been prosecuted. And yet, we continue to suffer from widespread inaction on climate change, even when so much data has been thoughtfully collected and analyzed. So all this technology (and the investment of all this time, money, and brainpower) still leads to moments of maddeningly futility, and his images of these satellite constructions capture that duality.

This conclusion conceptually leads to the recent animal portraits in the other gallery space. These still life images were made in cooperation with the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, and capture an intimate selection of dead animals set against either plain or scientific backgrounds. Their various causes of death not directly revealed, but the implication is that each died as result of either rapid change in its environment or of detrimental interaction with humans (disease, poison, etc.).

Struth has seen each specimen with his usual antiseptic precision, but there is something more going on. His approach celebrates nature’s own innovations, from the glorious plumage of the turaco and the silky coat and tail of the red fox, to the majestic lines of the heron and the broad wingspan of the white-tailed eagle. Other images stay neutral and honest, but can’t help but highlight the inherent vulnerability of the subjects. A baby leopard cat curls up, a zebra seems to stumble forward (with a bloody scar on its side), and a wild sheep is seen upside down, the curve of its soft underchin leaving us with a mood of gentle sadness. Struth then takes this melancholy one step further and turns it into grim aggression, offering us an image of a bloody brain as his final visual statement (it’s hung on the back side of the partition, so we inevitably see it last). Placed in dialogue with the futuristic technology pictures, the animal portraits quietly refute the optimism and swagger of human ambition, seeming to say that even with the best of intentions, our ability to use our fancy technology to positively influence or protect the animal kingdom (or the larger world around us) hasn’t proven particularly successful.

Struth isn’t exactly known for hard-hitting issues-based photography, but this pairing sets up the contrast of high and low so overtly that his point of view isn’t hard to ascertain. He has clearly reached a point where he is frustrated and fed up with humanity’s ineffectiveness, and in this new set of pictures, he uses his acute powers of observation to deliver a juxtaposed critique with slap-in-the-face crispness.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The large technology images (on view in the North galleries) range in price from roughly €200000 to €300000. The smaller animal portraits (on view in the South gallery) range from roughly €15000 to €100000. 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 topped $1.8M in 2015), with large, well known pieces consistently fetching six figures.

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