Sugimoto: Portraits

The Guggenheim Museum

by Roger McClanahan

The Music Lesson by Sugimoto

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Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin
Queen Victoria, 1999
Gelatin Silver Print - edition 1/5
58 3/4 x 47 inches

The Guggenheim Museum in Soho finally has something new on display. They are showing and exhibition of the photographs of Hiroshi Sugimoto until November 10th. There is certainly a startling quality to this work. First they are very large and all in black and white. He is once again focusing on photographs of figures taken from wax museums, a subject he explored earlier in his Diorama series. In his earlier work he took his subjects from dioramas typically found in natural history museums and wax museum portraits of celebrities.

This show consists of larger than life black-white portraits of historical figures ranging from Napoleon to Oscar Wilde, a series of English Kings and Queens including Princess Diana. These photographs remind you of paintings by van Dyck and Holbein for a good reason. The wax figures were themselves drawn from famous portraits of the subjects.

Lurking in the background of his work are the work of artists Nan Goldin, Hannah Wilke, Cindy Sherman, Colette, and Joel Peter Witkin. The difference of course is that these artists were much more original and their work is charged with their own personal experience. Nan Goldin takes you into the haunted world of an underclass of drug addicts, homosexuals, and AIDS victims. Hannah Wilke's early photographic work focused on issues of feminism and the relationship of the body and eroticism to experience. Of course her final work was an almost mindbendingly painful analysis of the destruction of the body as it is ravaged by disease and yet also of the indomitable human spirit in the face of such pain and suffering. Sherman's work, while much lighter in tone, nevertheless is consistently imaginative as she creates imaginary characters and turns herself into historical figures. Colette (aka Olympia) is very playful. You might subtitle some of her work ìgirls just want to have funî.

In fact, she too is exploring a historical landscape and using herself as the focus for a way of looking at how women are exploited as sex objects by openly declaring herself a sex object. Joel Peter Witkin is the master photographer of the bizarre and uncanny. Compare the subject matter and photographic accomplishment of his work to Sugimoto and you will see why Sugimoto fails to resonate beyond a momentary ability to startle. In one photography Sugimoto has taken a picture of a wax tableau of The Music Lesson by Vermeer which is reproduced in Madame Tussaudís Amsterdam Museum. He also has a shot of an effigy of Leonardo da Vinciís Last Supper, originally in a Japanese wax museum. These coy attempts to relate his photographs to celebrated artistic monuments are heavy-handed efforts to explore the relationship between illusion and reality.

Seeing all these enormous photographs in the huge spaces of the downtown Guggenheim, you canít help but be amazed. After the initial impact wears off, there is a feeling of dismay. He really has not said anything of value. Later that day I came across one of his photographs at a gallery in Chelsea. Indeed, it was another copy of The Music Lesson. I had this sinking feeling that these were commercial works of art. I could easily imagine finding them in board rooms of corporations or bedrooms of wealthy clients.

Within a few days one completely forgets these giant portraits of historical wax figures. I think it is rather like a visit to a wax museum itself- riveting for an instant, then instantly forgettable.

Deutsche Guggenheim Berlin
The Music Lesson, 1999
Gelatin Silver Print - edition 1/5
58 3/4 x 47 inches

The exhibition was on view from  at the Guggenheim Museum NYC.

Reviewed by Roger McClanahan

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