Arts & Leisure (link)
ST. LOUIS — In the autumn of 2004, the novelist Jonathan Safran Foer went to Berlin to work on a libretto for the opera called “Seven Attempted Escapes From Silence,” about prisoners who have lost the power of speech. But his mind was at least partly on another version of silence — one found in a set of photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto he had been carrying around.
Taken the previous summer, the images were of “Joe,” a sculpture by Richard Serra that was named in homage to Joseph Pulitzer and sits in the courtyard of the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts here. Tadao Ando, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect who designed the foundation’s home, collaborated with Mr. Serra on the placement of the sculpture.
This summer Mr. Sugimoto’s photographs of Mr. Serra’s sculpture in Mr. Ando’s courtyard were published in a book titled “Joe” (Prestel), along with a prose poem by Mr. Foer that follows a protagonist also named Joe. Mr. Sugimoto’s photographs are on view through Oct. 14 at the Pulitzer Foundation, just steps away from their subject.
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When Emily Pulitzer opened the Pulitzer Foundation in 2001, she conceived of it as a gesamtkunstwerk — Wagner’s term for the synthesis of multiple art forms — and “Joe,” in all its permutations, lives out the notion to dizzying effect. As Mr. Ando, Mr. Serra, Mr. Sugimoto and Mr. Foer have engaged with one another’s work, they haven’t collaborated so much as converged. And sometimes it seems as if they haven’t converged so much as collided.
In July 2003 Mr. Sugimoto arrived in St. Louis to photograph the Pulitzer Foundation. Earlier he had photographed Mr. Ando’s Church of the Light and a small row house known as the Azuma house in Osaka, Japan. But in St. Louis his attention was soon distracted by Mr. Serra’s sculpture (the first in his “Torqued Spiral” series), which rests in an outdoor courtyard reminiscent of the Zen rock gardens of Kyoto.
Its position, and the design of the courtyard itself, emerged from several days that Mr. Ando and Mr. Serra spent working together on a model of the building. But their accounts of that experience differ. Mr. Ando recalls that “we discussed the design of the architecture thoroughly together, without any compromising.”
Mr. Serra said: “I was able to tell Ando and prevail in terms of the kind of site that I needed, the kind of wall, the height of the wall I wanted, the design of the wall, the space I wanted, the kind of ground I wanted, where I wanted the windows, the length of the windows and the height of the elevation of the steps.” He added, “It was a real give and take.”
Whatever the case, Mr. Sugimoto was captivated, and he photographed the sculpture at dawn and at dusk for five days. “It was amazing,” he said. “Even though it was a small structure, if I moved just a few inches, the composition changed. I could come up with a hundred different compositions easily.”
Mr. Sugimoto gave the photographs serial numbers from his architecture series, and glimpses of Mr. Ando’s building are sometimes visible in the background. “But for some reason the sculpture dominated,” Mr. Sugimoto said. “In this case I think Ando lost and Serra wins. The sculpture looks more architectural to me than the architecture, so what’s the difference?”
Mr. Serra first saw the photographs of his work in the winter of 2004, at a private viewing at Mr. Sugimoto’s studio arranged by the Pulitzer Foundation. Mrs. Pulitzer and Matthias Waschek, the foundation’s director, had begun to plan a book of Mr. Sugimoto’s photographs and wanted Mr. Serra’s blessing if not his collaboration.
Accompanied by his wife, Clara, Mr. Serra began selecting photographs that he found “of interest” and arranged them in different sequences. But, Mr. Waschek recalled, he just as quickly backed off.
Mr. Serra said: “It’s his work, it’s not my work. It’s his idea of how to translate my sculpture into his work, it’s not my idea of how to translate my sculpture into his work, or how to translate my sculpture into photography, which I don’t do anyway.”
Mr. Serra did suggest a writer for the text to accompany the photographs in the book: Susan Sontag. “I wanted her to look at the photographs and look at the sculpture, and write something in relationship to the idea of photography in relation to sculpture in relation to architecture in relation to photography,” he said.
Mr. Sugimoto and Ms. Sontag were also friends, and she visited the Pulitzer Foundation. Because of her declining health, however, she was unable to write anything. She died in December 2004.
Mr. Sugimoto meanwhile had already asked Mr. Foer, whom he had met years earlier, to write the text. On his first visit to Mr. Sugimoto’s studio, Mr. Foer brought a copy of the book “A Convergence of Birds,” which he had edited, an anthology of original poetry and fiction inspired by the small dioramas of Joseph Cornell, and they had talked for hours.
“That was a major problem for me,” Mr. Sugimoto said, “Serra’s side pushing me to kick Jonathan out, and asking Susan Sontag to step in.”
Mr. Foer — who said that Mr. Sugimoto’s photography “makes me want to write a novel” — was eager to avoid any acrimony. “I would have chosen her over me,” he said.
Mrs. Pulitzer preferred not to have a critical text. “Our building has been described as a gesamtkunstwerk, and that’s what we hoped to create with the book: a kind of parallel creation, where the book itself, the photographs and the text were all works of art that reinforced each other.”
Later in 2004, Takaaki Matsumoto, a graphic designer in New York who specializes in fine art books and who has designed nearly all of Mr. Sugimoto’s books since the early 1990’s, began creating a sequence of the photographs. Mr. Foer began writing his prose poem, which loosely follows a man named Joe through his life, including falling in love with his wife, the birth of his child and his old age. The text corresponds to specific photographs, although the connections can be elusive, and the chronology is elliptical.
By contrast to the style of his novels, Mr. Foer’s language is spare, in response to the abstraction and minimalism of the photographs. “I wouldn’t have written that on my own, and I wouldn’t have written that for somebody else’s photographs or for other photographs of Hiroshi’s,” he explained.
Mr. Sugimoto traces that spareness to the lack of any human presence in his photographs, pointing especially to the appearance in the poem of a dog whose owner was mute, and who “never heard its name, so it didn’t have a name.” Many of the photographs were taken from a very low angle — a dog’s eye view, he said.
But Mr. Serra was less pleased with the text. He takes umbrage at the character’s being called Joe.
“Even though it’s supposed to be fictional, the guy is called Joe, and the sculpture is called Joe,” he said. “And the sculpture evolves out of the personal relationship over a 30-year period with somebody who is a close friend. And then we’re supposed to glean some understanding of who the man was or what the sculpture was? It evaded me.”
Mr. Foer never met Mr. Pulitzer, and he deliberately avoided going to St. Louis to see Mr. Serra’s sculpture. The journey “would have been belittling to the photographs,” he said. “The idea of having to see something in the flesh is in a way to demean them. The photographs are the flesh. They are the real thing.”
Mr. Serra disagrees, in a way. “I always think that photography in its essence robs something from sculpture,” he said. Sometimes, he allows, the interaction can be fruitful, but only if the artworks are seen as a series of responses rather than collaboration, a one-way conversation.
For Mr. Foer, it was a very particular, even familiar kind of one-way conversation. “It’s like talking to a grave,” he said, noting that the photograph on the cover of the book resembles a tombstone.
With the book now in stores, Mr. Sugimoto has taken one more pass at the larger project: designing the installation of his photographs of Mr. Serra’s sculpture at the Pulitzer Foundation. Rather than frame them in glass, he chose to mount them on aluminum, as if they too were sculptures. Depending on their path, visitors to the museum will see the sculpture in the courtyard, and then step inside and see its two-dimensional representations, or vice versa.
“And then they can judge which is more interesting,” Mr. Sugimoto said with a laugh.
September 15, 2006