David Cohen convened the first of the spring’s Review Panels at the National Academy Museum on January 30th, and among the shows the panelists took to task was Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs at Gagosian (21st St.), 7 Days / 7 Nights. An odd thing happened when the panelists–joining David were Elizabeth Schambelan, Ken Johnson and (my friend, the brilliant) Joan Waltemath–began talking about Sugimoto’s work: not a single panelist mentioned the one factor that organizes this series of Sugimoto’s photographs, and that is the horizon. (In fact, only Joan actually mentioned the content of the images at all, noting the importance of the local weather conditions to the effectiveness of the photographs.) Perhaps it is too obvious, but it seems to me that one cannot adequately get at what is interesting, or even important, about Sugimoto’s seascapes, without at least broaching the topic of the horizon–whether as a line or as limit of perception (both real and metaphorical) or as primordial condition of orientation.
It’s not that Sugimoto’s seascapes are necessarily “about” the horizon (though they are this in many ways); rather, in the images, the horizon at once announces itself as the element that offers the internal formal logic of the pictures (Sugimoto photographs his seas such that the horizon always appears in the same place, bisecting the horizontal dimension of the image), while at the same time, that logic is consistently undermined, or challenged, sometimes by the starkness of the formal device itself (in pictures where the sea and sky are easily distinguished, the recession is flattened and the picture reads like a geometric abstraction) but often by the weather or lighting conditions that obscure the horizon’s very legibility.
In short, what Sugimoto’s photographs of seascapes do is to assert and to negate the horizon at the same time; speaking phenomenologically, we could say that these pictures orient and disorient at the same time. It is this sense of disorientation that Michael Fried, in his recent book, Why Photography Matters As Art As Never Before (Yale, 2008), pushes to such a point that it underwrites the “ontological fiction,” so important to Fried’s thinking on absorption and theatricality, that the observer does not exist. Here disorientation becomes a kind of a-orientation, a condition of being-in-the-world that has no need of one’s being-there, of a perspective that belongs to no one (and it is exactly in this sense that Sugimoto’s photographs are not exercises in perspective, even though they hinge on the horizon line, upon which all perspectival constructions must be built).
I think there is something to this reading of Sugimoto’s seascapes, but I am not willing to give up the other side of the coin here; which is to say, in negating the horizon, Sugimoto’s photographs reassert or perserve it all the same. Whether that horizon is “for us” or “for itself” is a subsequent concern. And staying with this pairing of negation and preservation is exactly what leads me to Fred Sandback’s work. Or rather, it is Sandback’s work that lead me, I think, to a better understanding of Sugimoto’s seascapes.
It is pure conicidence that David Zwirner mounted an exhibition of Sandback’s work while the Sugimoto was on. But these are the kinds of chance encounters the can be essential to thinking things anew. Walking through the Sandback installation, one cannot but be struck by how the geometric layouts that one reads where the strings connect to the floor or ceiling become all but illegible when viewing the pieces straight on. More technically, one would describe this as the conflict or the incongruity between the works’ plan an elevation, as Edward Vasquez did when he gave a walkthrough of the exhibition back at the very end of January. Vasquez went on to conjecture, rightly I think, that what Sandback was doing in much of his work was engaging with the language of linear perspective, the mapping or translating of three-dimensional space through the use of a two-dimensional line, which, of course, Sandback renders three-dimensional once again.
And if engaging with the language or vocabulary of linear perspective is what Sandback is doing, then the horizon once again becomes paramount. And yet the horizon in Sandback’s work is essentially nonexistent; or rather, Sandback’s work, as Sugimoto’s seascapes do, negates the horizon at every turn. Not one piece of thread seems to take up residence or establish a horizon line for the viewer. The one that comes closest, a corner piece of white and red thread, is more concerned with constructing the illusion of the piece’s connection to the walls–an act of experiential disorientation rather than perspecitival orientation. But again, in denying the horizon, one becomes that much more aware of it. In its absence, the horizon is preserved.