“My own work is about different situations in which people find themselves... About the contemplation of art as a self-reflection: being confronted with your own imagination, with the fictive personification in, for example, paintings, and with the artist’s vision of the world at the same time.” (T. STRUTH, quoted in A. Goldstein, ‘Portraits of Self-Reflection’, in Thomas Struth 1977-2002, exh. cat., Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, 2002, p. 171)
With its balanced proportional perspective and lofty arrangement of architectural forms The Rothko Chapel, Houston, 2007 is a monumental photograph that celebrates artistic prowess while calling into question the role of art as a spectators’ pastime. The towering work forms part of Thomas Struth’s series of Museum Photographs, a colossal venture that examines the candid interactions between museum visitors and masterpieces. The composition portrays two figures dwarfed by Mark Rothko’s sublime painting. The relationship between the spectators and the work is captured with piercing technical exactitude. Subdividing the picture plane into harmonic symmetry, Struth’s photograph echoes the epic stylistic elements of the painting he captures. His use of long exposure times luminously conveys the tone and shade of the environment, exhibiting a mastery of light and colour reminiscent of the Rothko itself. The grand scale of the photograph and the angle at which its subjects are captured immerse the viewer within the picture plane.
The work exemplifies Struth’s interest in the ritual of museum going and the aesthetic relationship between man and art. While many of Struth’s museum photographs capture the ephemerality of this interaction, articulated by his portrayal of bustling crowds, in this composition he captures two young figures arrested in a meditative trance before Rothko’s painting. His work explores art’s propensity for fetishization: as he explains, ‘the photos illuminate the connection and should lead the viewers away from regarding the works as mere fetish objects and initiate their own understanding or interventions in historical relationships’ (T. Struth, quoted in ‘Interview with Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Directions: Thomas Struth Museum Photographs, exh. cat., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., 1992, unpaged). Rothko’s painting, situated within a chapel and imbued with the spiritualism of a religious icon, becomes the embodiment of a fetishized object; the two visitors seated with reverence upon the pews appear as worshippers. However, Struth’s thought-provoking photograph adds a level of voyeurism that removes the work from this introspection and enables the spectator to examine the dialogue between viewer and painting.