The single most satisfying exhibition I’ve ever seen was Brancusi and Serra in Dialogue at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis. The Pulitzer is the best place I’ve ever been to see art. Open only two days a week, the galleries are restricted to fifty visitors at a time. The building by Tadao Ando is perfect. Every space is designed for quiet contemplation. The work is allowed to soar.
And boy did it soar with Brancusi and Serra. You can see the installation online here. Of course the installation pictures don’t do the work justice. But we shouldn’t expect photographs to replicate the experience of seeing sculpture.
This is my problem with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s recent series of photographs, Joe. Sugimoto photographed Serra’s sculpture, also named Joe, in the Pulitzer courtyard (Serra and Ando collaborated on its placement). The sculpture is a masterpiece. It sounds cliché, but when I viewed the work last year I had the experience of being transported.
© Hiroshi Sugimoto
Sugimoto’s photographs attempt not to illustrate the sculpture or installation but to replicate the experience. They are monumental in scale and number. While I’m a big fan of Sugimoto, I find these pictures extraordinarily weak. Nevertheless, the’ve commanded a lot of attention. This Sunday they were profiled in this New York Times article.
Sugimoto’s pictures have me considering the issue of photographing sculpture. I think it can be done well. In fact, I saw some terrific examples at the Brancusi/Serra show. Brancusi’s sole subject as a photographer was his own sculpture. He didn’t try to mimic the experience of the work itself. He used his pictures to convey the spirit of the process. He photographed his studio, himself working, etc. Brancusi once said, “Why write [on my art]? Why not just show the photographs?”
The Studio, Constantin Brancusi, 1927
Brancusi’s photographs are stimulating documents. They evoke a feeling for the time and dirty work that went into his refined and seemingly timeless objects. The pictures add to the experience of seeing his work whereas Sugimoto’s pictures feel like high-end spin-offs (when did $75,000 photographs replace posters?).
I do think that photographers can work with sculpture. In fact, sometimes the photographs are better than the sculpture. Richard Long’s photographs are always more interesting than his mud and rock sculptures in real life. But for me the greatest example is David Smith. While I recognize that he is a tremendously important figure, his sculptures have never had as great an impact on me as these photographs by Dan Budnick: