Thomas Struth: Photographs @Met

JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 black and white and color photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the large divided gallery space. The 16 black and white works are gelatin silver prints, made between 1978 and 1990; the 9 large scale color photographs are 8 chromogenic prints and 1 inkjet print, made between 1987 and 2013. A free newsprint supplement illustrating all of the Struth works in the museum’s collection is available in the gallery. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: For the past several years, I have consistently thought that the Met should reconsider the use of its contemporary photography galleries, giving up on the often well-crafted but nearly always dull and forgettable thematic group shows that have become the norm in the space and moving to straightforward solo shows of established mid-career photographers. The gallery itself is just right for a show of a several discrete bodies of work or a more in-depth summary of two or three projects – not too small and not too big. And while we all realize the Met is not the venue for an untried or otherwise risky mid-career survey, there are plenty of talented and worthy photographers who have earned the broad attention that a Met show would inevitably bring.

So it was with some real excitement that I saw a solo show in this very space appear on the future exhibitions calendar. Hooray! But I then had to gnash my teeth for just a second when I saw that the recipient of this show was Thomas Struth. This reaction had absolutely nothing to do with Struth’s strength as a candidate; his lofty position in contemporary photography is inarguable and well-deserved. It’s just that we enjoyed a full traveling retrospective of Struth’s work at the Met a mere decade ago (in 2003, here); for his number to come up again so quickly is downright perplexing (what other contemporary artist has had two solo Met shows in that same time span?) So while it’s clear that the Met’s broad Struth holdings allow it to easily assemble a solid sampler simply by drawing from its own permanent collection (thereby making such a show very straightforward and economical), his reprise is so safe that I had to swear under my breath at the missed opportunity for someone else.

But when we put all this exhibitions policy wrangling aside, what we are left with is a tightly edited mini-survey of Thomas Struth’s career, spanning nearly five productive decades of artistic output, so it’s hard to grumble too much. Following a loose decade-by-decade arc, the show begins with a grid of Struth’s masterful single point perspective black and whites looking straight down New York’s city streets. While these works were made in the late 1970s, they’ve lost none of their conceptual rigor in the intervening years; his views of dirty Crosby Street, the stone columns and glass panes of Financial District, the warehouses of Tribeca, and the townhouses of the Upper West Side all have a sharp geometric precision that seems to reorganize the city within his uniquely controlled vision.

By the late 1980s, Struth had modified this formality by playing with varying angles and flattening dense combinations of urban landscape volumes into unbalanced compositions. He’d also moved inside for quietly empathetic and collaborative group portraits and the beginnings of his museum series, where monumental photographic scale was applied to public interiors, making the viewer part of the chaotic crowd observing the awe inspiring massiveness of places like the Pantheon in Rome. While these scenes still exhibited Struth’s technical grandeur, the pictures were less standoffish and had more of a participatory shared experience feeling.

By the late 1990s however, this humanism was starting to slowly drain back out of Struth’s work. Haphazard crowds posing in Tienanmen Square gave way to a frieze of ant-sized tourists in front of Milan’s cathedral (echoed by the sculptures hovering above), and ultimately to urban landscapes in sleek places like Times Square and dense jungle scenes in pristine natural settings that were equally devoid of human presence. Struth’s most recent pictures center on sites of technology, where hulking steel mills and impossibly complicated medical facilities are treated like portrait subjects, the connection between man and machine all the more profoundly intertwined and inexplicable.

What I like best about this show is its goldilocks just rightness in terms of size; it hits all the important high points and aesthetic transitions for a visitor entirely unfamiliar with Struth, while offering enough superlative single images to satisfy those who have followed Struth’s career much more closely. It’s exactly the kind of easily digestible but still rigorous abbreviated survey that this particular gallery space is screaming out for. This Struth show can certainly be a fine (if predictable) banner leader for an ongoing parade of smart solo photography shows; based on its success, let’s just hope there are many more ready followers queued up in the wings.

Collector’s POV: Thomas Struth is represented by Marian Goodman Gallery in New York (here), where he had a show of new work earlier this year (reviewed here). 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 $1.3M in 2013), with large, well known pieces consistently fetching six figures.

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