Whitehot Magazine

June 2011, Thomas Struth @ K20 Grabbeplatz, Duesseldorf

Thomas Struth, Chemistry Fume Cabinet, The University of Edinburgh 2010
114,5 x 160 cm (Bild); 120,5 x 166 cm (Rahmen)
Copyright Thomas Struth; Foto: Copyright Kunstsammlung NRW

Thomas Struth: Photographs 1978 – 2010
K20 Grabbeplatz
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen
Grabbeplatz 5
40213 Düsseldorf

Along with Andreas Gursky and Candida Hoefer, Thomas Struth is one of the foremost representatives of the Duesseldorf School of Photography, all of whom were trained by Hilla and Bernd Becher at the city’s massively influential Kunstakademie in the 1970s. And all three artists have arguably more similarities than differences, occasionally making it difficult to tell their work apart. Both Hoefer and Struth, for instance, have applied the conceptual strategy of seriality to their images, producing photographs of different locales from identical perspectives, inducing a sense of displaced déjà vu, while Gursky and Struth are similarly obsessed with capturing competing masses of excess in large-scale formats.

Struth’s current hometown retrospective-style exhibition – a traveling show, in fact, with stops that also include Kunsthaus Zurich, the White Chapel Gallery in London, and the Museu Serralves in Porto – makes a case for the seminality of the photographer’s vision, in spite of these stylistic commonalities.

The exhibition can be summed up according to Struth’s strict focus on distinct subject matter. There are cityviews and –scapes (among them, Ulsan, Pyongyang, Seoul, Beijing, New York, and Duesseldorf), interiors of museums and historic sites, nature landscapes, family portraits, and scientific laboratories.

The photos’ sheer size, mostly attuned to the ambition and scale of the images, often presents a cold and alienating effect that has probably led more than one outsider to scoff, “typically German.” And while an argument could be posed that Struth is as much sensitive, as an artist, to the inner rhythms of the natural world as his clinical gaze is attuned to the troubled urban landscape, a concern with culture, in all its awesome and occasionally horrific guises, predominates.

Thomas Struth, Düsselstraße, Düsseldorf 1979. 36,5 x 51 cm (Bild); 66 x 84 cm (Rahmen)
Copyright Thomas Struth; Foto: Copyright Kunstsammlung NRW

As such, Struth is at his strongest when photographing others looking at art in those sacred houses of the visual, such as the Louvre, the Prado, the Alte Pinakothek, and the National Gallery in London. A maze of confrontations emerges from these works: Struth confronts denizens of the contemporary confronting the relics of civilization, which effectively forces us to confront our own role as spectators in a situation that is undoubtedly similar, given the propensity to show these works in museums and institutional spaces.

Struth’s photographs of forests pack less of a punch. They stray just a hair or two away from resembling vacation postcards; the air of detachment that works so well in his depictions of human tinkering with the environment effects a failed contrast here with the efflorescent content. I don’t think that Struth is dumb enough to be positing a simple dichotomy here between nature and culture, yet I still haven’t quite figured out the purpose of these works in Struth’s overall oeuvre, as they are lacking the rigid certainty one tends to find in both individual works and extended series.

More convincing are Struth’s portraits of cities. What’s eerie and cold about these works is that his subject is always the city itself – its archi-structure – rather than its inhabitants or mythologies. Struth is always at his best when there is a certain pictorial bluntness involved, and this is present in the earliest works on display – including several black-and-white photographs of empty New York City streets (1978), with a repetitive upside-down V-axis approach to horizontality, a series that was reproduced the following year in Duesseldorf.

Thomas Struth, Museo des Prado 4, Madrid 2005
169,5 x 214,3 cm (Bild); 177,5 x 222,3 cm (Rahmen)
Copyright Thomas Struth; Foto: Copyright Kunstsammlung NRW

Thomas Struth, Semi Submersible Rig, DMSE Shipyard, Geoje Island 2007
270 x 340 cm (Bild); 279,5 x 349 cm (Rahmen)
Copyright Thomas Struth, Foto: Copyright Kunstsammlung NRW

Thomas Struth, Tokamak Asdex Upgrade Interior 1, Max Planck IPP Garching 2010
268,3 x 218 cm (Bild); 275,8 x 225 cm (Rahmen)
Copyright Thomas Struth; Foto: Copyright Kunstsammlung NRW

Travis Jeppesen

Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio. 

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