Picture This

We wanted to say something nasty about DMA's Thomas Struth exhibit, but can't

In one of his finest essays from the mid-'90s, an exquisite savaging of Mother Teresa, the columnist, critic and professional gadfly Christopher Hitchens leads with an anecdote about Private Eye, a defunct satirical magazine. As Hitchens tells it, when the editors and writers of Private Eye were casting about for someone to rip apart, they would sit around a table and debate whose reputation was beyond question. When an appropriately spotless hero was identified, the editor would say, "Let's have a go at old [fill in name of hero], then."

If Private Eye were still around, Thomas Struth, the German-born photographer who is the subject of the Dallas Museum of Art's new exhibition, would be a candidate for the crosshairs. At 48, Struth is being venerated with a prestigious midcareer retrospective, his first in the United States. Organized by Charles Wylie, the DMA's young curatorial star, the show will travel over the next year to L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art and New York's Metropolitan Museum. Already, the saint-making machinery is humming. In this week's New Yorker, art critic and professional fashion victim Peter Schjeldahl calls Struth a "towering" figure. In his introduction to the 190-page full-color catalog, DMA Director John Lane hails Struth as "exceptional...one of the prominent artists of his generation," maker of "some of the most recognizable and admired images of recent times." May's Artforum devoted its cover and 11 gorgeous, full-color pages to Struth's retrospective.

Struth is, in short, enjoying a surfeit of hype, none of it to be trusted. He's ripe to be taken down a peg or three, and as I toured the DMA's exhibition, every irreverent nerve in my body was dying to do so. Alas, I can't. The DMA has mounted an interesting, if not exactly objective, retrospective of a fascinating body of work--although, like Struth's own body of work, the DMA's show fascinates as much for what it reveals about the time we live in as for the work itself.

"Art Institute of Chicago II, Chicago" (1990), one of Thomas Struth's "museum photographs" now on view at the DMA
"Art Institute of Chicago II, Chicago" (1990), one of Thomas Struth's "museum photographs" now on view at the DMA

We inhabit a strange, dishonest moment in the history of art. It is a time when photography rules, but only so long as it masquerades as something else and is accompanied by a thick impasto of critical theory. Thanks to its natural role as a documentary tool, the camera is no longer the down-market cousin of paint and plaster, but today's hoity-toity artistic medium of choice. When you think about it, it's a neat trick, the very thing that enabled art's leap off the museum wall, into conceptual art and land art and performance art and happenings and installations. It's damned difficult to haul "Spiral Jetty" into a museum setting, after all, and how else to record the existence of work that is, by its nature, impermanent? Photography is the key. It transfers easily to museum walls; it can be hung in collectors' houses; it can be auctioned at Sotheby's.

Struth's pretentious version of documentary photography fits this description to a T. Though he dabbles in portraiture, landscape and even still life, his primary intent is to document a particular historical moment, to employ the camera as cultural critic. "For me, making a photograph is mostly an intellectual process of understanding people or cities and their historical and phenomenological connections," Struth once explained to an interviewer. Ever conscious of starting in his own head, Struth has described his usual approach as "theoretical" rather than emotional or pictorial.

By the conventions of contemporary art, Struth's approach is nearly Neolithic. He doesn't dress up his subjects or their settings, he doesn't blur the focus or reach for artsy effects, he doesn't go out of his way to make the camera lie. In his earliest work, a series of urban landscapes shot in the deserted moments of first light, viewers usually are given a visual path into the picture--a street, or a public square, or a triangular bit of foreground pointing into frame. A second body of work, a series of portraits, uses a similarly deadpan approach. Whether presenting the face of urban architecture or the architecture of urbane faces, Struth has mastered a certain critical standoffishness, the trick of apparent objectivity.

It is, of course, a pose. Though the young Struth once claimed that his interest lay in "photographs that have no personal signature," he has created a body of work that is anything but anonymous. Struth's critical choices--what to shoot, how to frame, what angles, what times, etc.--lend his work a distinctive style and, of course, a point of view. Nor is he beyond staging his subjects to make a point, the most obvious example being his picture of himself looking at Durer's famous self-portrait.

Sometimes the pose works, and sometimes it doesn't. As Struth recently explained: "I...am interested in peculiarity, the individual ways of people and what goes on inside them when their historical bearings are disoriented." This stance works particularly well in pictures such as "Las Vegas 1, Las Vegas/Nevada" (1999), in which an architecturally confused series of low-slung buildings is set against a multistory monstrosity of a hotel/condo. The photograph not only documents postmodern disorientation but produces it in the viewer; the only clue to where we might be is a handful of folk wandering along a pier. The stance works less well in Struth's best-known works, his museum photographs--a famous series of more or less objective views of people viewing art in museums that demonstrates the strengths and the weaknesses of Struth's philosopher-anthropologist schtick. They represent the point at which Struth's work veers off into faux profundity, as we, the viewers, contemplate Struth viewing people viewing art, or even Struth viewing people viewing people viewing art. They are simple illustrations of what, in a legal context, is called the "renvoi." Ironically, they are interesting mostly for the very qualities Struth prefers not to emphasize in his work: an old-fashioned sense of pictorial composition, a richness of color and subject matter and breathtaking beauty. While the actual experience of visiting, say, Venice's San Zaccaria or Times Square literally overwhelms the senses, in Struth's huge (70-by-90-inch) full-color portraits, we can take in the beauty of setting, soak in the details, study and appreciate, free from vertigo. The viewers are simply part of the visual tapestry, an element as rich and interesting as an intricately inlaid marble floor. As many theorists have noted, we perceive its beauty in part because the subject is fleeting; indeed, the moment, the visit, is already gone, and thus inextricably linked to death, to the nature of time.

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