Joe Scanlan, 1990

The Renaissance Society presents the first one-person United States museum exhibition of Dusseldorf, West German artist Thomas Struth. Struth’s beautifully composed photographs of urban environments—anonymous high rises, vacant piazzas, cluttered shopping districts, and empty streets—have the appearance of being superficially and flatly documentary. What is initially most striking about them is their beauty, their richness of detail, their imploringly deep and perspectival streets and oddly opaque facades.

The images however are surprisingly elusive—and further captivating—in that their informative look is denied by their content. One’s expectation and desire for knowledge of place is not immediately satisfied in these pictures, forcing the viewer to root into the alleys and architectural crevices of the photographs in search of telltale social clues. Languages, architectural styles, automobiles, and businesses provide the viewer with a secondary confidence of knowing “where they are” in the picture, as well as indicating (and questioning) one’s own social and cultural intellect.

Even this knowledge and confidence is doubtable though, once one contemplates the global saturation and exchange of cultures, languages, products, and styles, a point Struth makes in the careful selection and composition of his pictures, which have the illusory ability of confusing Edinburgh with Rome and Tokyo with New York. Volkswagens in America, McDonald’s in Asia, and the global predominance of Modernist architecture significantly confuse the understanding of cultural origins and stereotypes, as well as speak to the global saturation and vengeance of certain morals, businesses, and styles. As Americans seeing this work, we recognize the European sources of certain architectural styles and city planning; those suburban situations which are truly American; and those which have been transplanted and adopted in non-Western countries. Thus these pictures exude an equally soothing and disturbing familiarity and alienation that suspends one’s ability to fully define and possess the subjects of the camera.

This aspect is underscored by the fact that the inhabitants of Struth’s pictures are so conspicuously absent that the viewer must account for, incorporate, and resolve. This individual investment in Struth’s ambiguous and melancholy images personalizes what historically has been a much more brutal and imperious acculturation of foreign lands.