New York

Thomas Struth

It is like saying: “I classify works of Art in this way: at some I look up and at some I look down.” This way of classifying might be interesting. We might discover all sorts of connections between looking up or down at works of Art and looking up and down at other things.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lectures & Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, 1966

In “Audience,” Thomas Struth’s 2004 series of photographs shown recently at Marian Goodman Gallery, tourists visiting the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence are depicted looking up at Michelangelo’s David, which towers above them. Almost all the visitors—dressed lightly in shorts, slacks, or skirts, with sneakers or sandals on their feet—appear oblivious or perhaps merely indifferent to being photographed, an impression that, traditionally, has been taken to imply that the subjects in question are thereby revealing their “inner selves.” But the pictures also convey the sense that the photographer was in no way concealed from his subjects, and in fact Struth—shooting with a strobe light—could hardly have been more exposed, standing next to an eight-by-ten-inch camera in the roped-off area surrounding the sculpture’s base. (Near the center of Audience 7, a man in a broad-brimmed hat stares directly at the camera with a quizzical expression; approaching to look more closely, we notice that the statue is reflected in the sunglasses clipped to the neck of his shirt.)

Much of the quiet drama of the series consists in this tension, the balance of forces between the photographer’s implied lack of concealment and the various, more-or-less-absorbed responses to Michelangelo’s masterpiece of many, though by no means all, of the visitors (some look elsewhere, talk with one another, leaf through guidebooks, or mill about). This is where it matters that the absorbed beholders are looking up, away from the photographer. It doubtless matters too that the masterpiece at which they are gazing is a considerably larger-than-life marble statue of a superlative specimen of naked virile humanity: The viewer of the photographs cannot but be aware of the implied contrast—which somehow carries only the scantest charge of irony—between the bodily and psychical (also the material, the artifactual) aura of the heroic, monumental David, and the very different modes of presence represented by the contemporary visitors in their often awkward but invariably respectful attitudes and casual summer dress...

The “Audience” photos thus differ fundamentally from Struth’s classic “Museum Photographs,” 1987–2004, in which facial expression is minimized and beholders are often depicted from behind, and from 1996–2001’s “Pergamon Museum” sequence with “directed” visitors, even as they relate to both in obvious respects. Put slightly differently, they are no less original in conception and compelling in realization than either, while their engagement with the fundamental question of the picture’s relation to its viewers—which of course goes back to Diderot—is as acute as that in any body of work in Struth’s oeuvre.

All the pictures in the show are considerably wider than they are high, and seven of them, hung on facing walls, were grouped in two ensembles of four and three. The foursome especially was effective as a whole, yielding an overall impression of a single panoramic view although, as quickly becomes clear, each was taken in exactly the same place at a different time. But this in turn reinscribes and intensifies the contrast between the lateral composition of the ensemble on the gallery wall and the upward gaze of Struth’s individual subjects toward Michelangelo’s daunting and impassive paragon, unseen by us (except in tiny reflections) but all the more “present” in its sublimity on that account.

Also on view in the far room is a four-and-a-half-hour video work projected on two screens of unequal sizes. Read This Like Seeing It for the First Time, 2005, records in images and sound a series of guitar lessons conducted by Struth’s friend Frank Bungarten with his class from the Lucerne Music Academy. Bungarten, a superb guitarist, also has extraordinary personal magnetism and, on the evidence of the video, is an inspirational teacher. The left-hand screen typically offers a close-up view of Bungarten and the individual student with whom he is working, while the right-hand one shows more of the group as a whole. For minutes at a time both scenes may be stationary, but there is just enough camera movement to keep the viewer engaged, quite apart from the entrancing and, may I say, utterly nontheatrical character of the lessons themselves. I admire the work extravagantly, and suspect that Wittgenstein, for whom musical instruction was a paradigm of aesthetic discourse, would have liked it too.

Michael Fried