German photographer Thomas Struth started his career not as an artist, but as an art teacher.
In his retrospective "Thomas Struth," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through May 18, he teaches us how to view the world through active, not passive, perception.
The theme is made explicit on first entering the museum, where gigantic video portraits, 14 feet high and 24 feet across, of Struth's friends are projected on walls of the Great Hall. Staring straight at the viewer, the subjects make explicit the act of looking.
"Struth's concept," according to co- curator Douglas Eklund, "is that the viewer completes the meaning of a work" by participating in creating its meaning.
Seventy photographs, many mural-sized, demonstrate why Struth is a major figure in contemporary art.
As a pupil of German photographers Bernd and Hilla Becker, Struth trained in Dusseldorf, where he still lives. Along with other Becker disciples, like Andreas Gursky and Thomas Ruff, Struth brought the large-scale color photograph from a marginal position in 1970s art to the forefront of contemporary art.
Not content to shape today's art, Struth has made reviving art history a personal crusade. His signature images are scenes of art pilgrims visiting museums and cultural sites all over the world.
His "aim is to unleash the power of paintings," Eklund says. Struth believes "art can transcend all of history's cataclysms," Eklund continues. But past masterpieces must not be considered "fetish objects you kneel down before."
Instead, they are works to grapple with now. "There's a restorative aspect to [Struth's] work," Eklund says. "His pictures are about rehabilitating or cleansing our vision."
A shot of the interior of San Zaccaria Church in Venice shows walls covered with Biblical frescoes by Bellini. The painted figures look just as alive as the tourists studying them. The photo's large scale reveals details with pristine clarity and gives a sense of cohabiting in the space.
His image of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris gives viewers a "you are there" immediacy. Carved stone prophets and apostles ascend the facade, as lines of tourists stream into the church. Past and present, sacred and secular, merge and diverge.
His famous photograph of visitors observing Caillebotte's "Paris, Rainy Day" in the Art Institute of Chicago (where the exhibition makes a final stop in June) illustrates the interchange between viewer and viewed. The strolling figures in the painting gaze at each other, while visitors to the Art Institute gaze at them. …