Art’s Audiences Become Artworks Themselves
Thomas Struth’s show at Marian Goodman — rapturous, magisterial photographs of museum visitors standing before Velázquez in Madrid and looking at Leonardo at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg — culminates one of the memorable art projects of the last 20 years or so. For nearly that long, Mr. Struth has been making these pictures of people in museums. They’re looking at art, although you might say the real question is what they, and we, are seeing.
The beauty of these pictures is almost a given by now. This current show forms a coda to one lately at the Prado, where Mr. Struth insinuated a dozen or more, some nearly life-size, photographs among the paintings and sculptures. It took some gall and guile. Come upon irregularly and unexpectedly, his pictures punctuated galleries of nearly unrelenting greatness.
Sometimes they intruded. Occasionally, they seemed irrelevant. Mostly they were jarring. I found myself later recalling photographs I had thought forgettable at the time, in the way you may recall somebody you just glimpsed at a museum more vividly than the art.
Mr. Struth’s work partly entails obscuring (and thereby making us focus more on) these distinctions among the spaces in the paintings he photographs, the ones occupied by people looking at those paintings, and the ones we occupy, looking at the photographs. In a room of portraits by Velázquez, Mr. Struth placed a photograph of two young Japanese women gazing at a work outside the camera’s range, which happened to be at a spot on the wall exactly where their own picture now was. Their mix of desire and reserve, measured across a clear cultural gulf, seemed gently comic and touching. The paintings on the wall glowered back at them.
Opposite Goya’s “Third of May,” with its hero before a firing squad, Mr. Struth interjected a picture of an audience in Tokyo, seen in shadowy silhouette, admiring Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People,” on loan from the Louvre, inside its huge, antiseptic-white glass box. Two scenes of historic heroism, by Goya and Delacroix, were subtly mitigated by the moral twilight of modern consumption, one kind of spectacle having replaced another.
At the Prado, Mr. Struth also put up a photograph of himself (you see only his arm and shoulder, in a blue jacket, blurred) looking at a Dürer self-portrait in Munich, which, perfectly focused, stares back at us. Dürer is the real sitter in Mr. Struth’s self-portrait, the picture’s paradox. That photograph hung next to the Prado’s own self-portrait by Dürer.
And in the catalog for the Prado show there’s also a photograph by Mr. Struth of the whole installation, a virtual Chinese box of allusions, true to what is so often the experience in a crowded, diverting museum, which is that we lose ourselves in the act of looking.
Mr. Struth’s project links to a long, often undistinguished history of painting people looking at art. His deadpan affect and panoramic scale, simulating real encounters in real spaces, can be deceptive. The work is subtly emotional and not just about glossy visuals. You see at Goodman how the museum experience in general has evolved in recent years, how mobs have grown, along with the distractions of cellphones, but also what hasn’t changed.
The expression on the faces of two middle-aged women, heads leaning into one another, sharing an audio guide at the Hermitage, searching a Leonardo, is eternal. (Their looks are at once hopeful and wary.) At their shoulders, wearing a pink visor and lime-green spaghetti straps, is a kind of modern American Madonna, a young angel of tourism.
Mr. Struth set up his camera beside the painting so we see these people looking at a picture we can’t see. He grouped several such photographs, different, taken at different times, to make a frieze; the ebb and flow of bodies holds everything together. He did the same with combined views of people before “Las Meninas” at the Prado, which we do see, the figures in the painting staring at the people staring at them.
And we, in turn, scour the scenes as we do the art: here is the smiling tour guide, leaning into a goggle-eyed scrum of visitors who lean oh so slightly away from the Velázquez, as if intimidated by its reputation. There, Spanish teenagers, undaunted by the work, argue beneath it, absorbed by one another, oblivious to its power. Their poses unconsciously mimic the figures in the picture. (A girl, all in red, bent at the waist, perfectly echoes the handmaiden beside the Infanta; a boy with his hand behind his back mirrors Velázquez standing behind his canvas.) Space unfolds into the painting, which itself is a hall of mirrors.
And then there are the grade-school children whom Mr. Struth photographs, in their uniforms, scattered like flower petals before Velázquez’s “Surrender of Breda,” next to which the famous ancient bronze sculpture of the little boy pulling a thorn from his foot is a dry joke; he’s like one of the distracted kids. A tiny, dark-haired boy in the middle ground glares back at the camera, serious and unfathomable, a real-life sort of Velázquez dwarf. A little girl touches another boy’s shoulder. Her hand, swiftly moving, goes slightly out of focus. Like Velázquez, Mr. Struth discloses these little bits of humanity, which seem ordinary, but which leap out, collapsing time.
“The moments of the past do not remain still,” as Proust wrote. “They retain in our memory the motion which drew them toward the future, towards a future which has itself become the past, and draw us on in their train.”
Mr. Struth’s pictures are about this continuum, from artists like Velázquez into the public spaces where their works end up, and to us. What are we looking for in a museum? We go to find truth in pictures, and we end up reading one another’s faces.
We look for ourselves.
“Making Time,” photographs by Thomas Struth, continues through April 28 at Marian Goodman Gallery, 24 West 57th Street; (212) 977-7160.