Monday, October 10, 2011

Thomas Struth...and even more about teaching

Thomas Struth 2011 - courtesy Schirmer/Mosel

I just finished reading Janet Malcolm’s excellent article (New Yorker, September 26, 2011) on the photographer, Thomas Struth, whose 30-year survey I saw last July at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. I often cringe when art world outsiders attempt to write about art; editors can forget that it’s a specialized field like science or sports, with specialized practices and precedents. They might assign a music writer to write about art (as the Chicago Tribune did back in the day) but an art writer to write about football? Hardly. Outsiders tend to idolize and idealize the artist, make too much of technique (which can seem magical to them), and emphasize the wrong things—Anthony Lane’s 2003 article on Howard Hodgkin in the same magazine is a case in point: Lane, normally a perceptive film critic, made much of the fact that Hodgkin would date a piece over the years it took to make it, i.e. “1998-2002,” an utterly common artistic practice, and wrote “If you know Hodgkin’s work, you can spot it across a crowded room.” Uh, that’s called personal style.

Also, to a frightening degree, most writers of profiles (art and non-art) tend to be so cowed by their subjects that they rarely question or evaluate their statements. Malcolm, however, isn’t afraid to intelligently correct what she perceives as Struth’s “mischaracterization” of photo-realist painting, and point out how, while not a conscious influence, that work anticipated Struth’s generation of photographers.

The piece begins and ends with the story of Struth’s recently commissioned portrait of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. The photograph is remarkable for its subtlety, not a quality usually associated with pictures of monarchs. Generally the poses are dry and formal or the opposite, smiling with dogs or small children, as if the photographer is trying to say, “See? Royals are human, too.”  Instead Struth wraps vulnerability, power, and constraint into a single package. Seeing the reproduction (although with no indication of size, which turns out to be 59” x 79”) and learning about the sensitivity with which Struth approached the project gave me insight into his work to the point that I wished I could go back and see the Whitechapel show all over again. If all art writing were like that, I wouldn’t be so vehement on the subject.

The Struth piece reminded me how much I learned in the 23 years I spent working with TIME’s estimable collection of cover art (from Warhol to Alice Neel, Alex Katz, and Christo, with my hands-down favorite being Marisol’s sculpture of Bob Hope) and commissioning pieces from “gallery artists” (the only term I could come up with that would distinguish them from illustrators) for the covers. It seemed that when the subject was a given I could see the artist’s peculiar vision more clearly—the special twist that could turn yet another image of an over-exposed celebrity into a genuine work of art.

And speaking of teaching, as we were in the posts below, it comes as no surprise that Struth studied with Gerhard Richter (described by Struth as “ironic,” with “coded” language and behavior) and photography icons Bernd and Hilla Becher of whom he said:

The big pedagogical influence was that they introduced me and others to the history of photography and to its great figures. They were fantastic teachers…in the way that they demonstrated the complexity of connections. It was an outstanding thing that when you were with Bernd and Hilla they didn’t talk about photography alone. They talked about movies, journalism, literature—stuff that was very comprehensive and complex. For example a typical thing Bernd would say was “You have to understand the photographs of Atget as the visualization of Marcel Proust.”

Which leads me to the idea I’ve often fantasized about, that until specializing at the college graduate level, we should be teaching not subjects but eras—Warhol in the context of the moon landing, birth control pills, Catch-22, and Marshall McLuhan makes much more sense than as part of some artificial trajectory from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art. When I was at Bennington I wanted to put together a multi-disciplinary class entitled “1968” (ideally to be followed by 1954, 1944, 1929, 1917, etc.) that would go into not just the cultural, political, and scientific events but what people were eating, what their houses looked like, their religious and educational practices, important legal disputes of the day, and so on.

Sometimes I think we’re still teaching everything like it’s 1890.


Maria Mingalone said...

I'd take that class!

deb said...

YES! that's exactly how we should teach, here's a time, here's what all kinds of people were thinking and doing and here's what artists in all these fields made of it. Brilliant! (but we already suspected you were!)

CAP said...

I think Culture Studies covers that ground these days.

Carol Diehl said...

Yes, Cultural Studies is a valuable beginning, but is still elective and separate from the whole, as if it's a "different" way of looking at things rather than the norm. I suggest that we should be teaching everything from a broader social, political, and cultural perspective starting even before the college level...