Hiroshi Sugimoto at the Gallery Koyanagi

by Monty DiPietro

Photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto has a problem with his trash.

"I throw out my rejected prints every Monday," he explains, "and even though I tear them up, stain and punch holes through them, there are always people going through my garbage to retrieve whatever they can."

While not an artcult superstar on the scale of his Upper East Side neighbors Jeff Koons and Jasper Johns, dumpster-divers and blue chip collectors alike are making New-York-based Sugimoto just as hot in the Big Appleís big art market.

And beyond.

From New Yorkís MoMA and The Met to the L.A. County Museum of Art and MoCA, and on to The Cartier in Paris, the artistís recent exhibitions chronicle a survey of major North American and European museums and galleries. Represented by the exclusive Sonnabend Gallery in New York, Sugimoto is selling everything he doesnít throw away.

"I donít really live in New York, I live in airplanes," says Sugimoto, "Constantly flying between shows in America, Europe and Japan."

Sugimotoís pictures seduce in a down to earth way - an enchantingly Japanese minimalism informs the artistís black and white photographs. Pictures of dummies in wax museums, pictures of over-exposed, whitewashed American movie screens, and most notably - pictures of seascapes.

"Twice as Infinity" is an exhibition of 26 of Sugimotoís recent seascapes, the artistís main subject over the last 20 years. The show is being presented in two parts at Gallery Koyanagi on the Ginza strip in Tokyo.

The 55x44cm photographs all feature a center-frame horizon splitting an empty sky and a still, weighty sea. A mysterious, Zen-like balance of light and time is played out in luscious greys. The artistís lens holds out an invitation, and his prints finish with a meditative question mark - the rest is up to the viewer.

To get the powdery sea effect in "North Atlantic Ocean - Cape Breton Island" [1996], Sugimoto hauled his American-made, wooden cabinet Durdorf and Sons camera out to Newfoundland, mounted it on a French tripod, screwed on a Carl Zeiss lens, loaded an 8x10 sheet of Kodak Plus-X 125 ASA film and then put a 16x neutral density filter on the unwieldy apparatus to reduce the filmís sensitivity to well below one ASA. "Thatís like the speed of 19th C. film, when photography was invented," he explains. When satisfied with light and composition, he tripped the shutter and waited one and a half hours for the seascape image to burn itself onto the film.

"North Atlantic Ocean - Cape Breton Island," in an edition of 25, is on sale for 450,000 yen at the Koyanagi, but donít bother rushing down to snatch one up - it is sold out.

There are, however, other prints still available - at prices of up to 650,000 yen.

News of Sugimotoís popularity among private collectors overseas has rippled back to the copycat Japanese museums - which are scrambling to pick him up. They are now his main buyers in the domestic market.

The Tokyo Museum of Contemporary Art has bought more than 10 Sugimoto pictures over the last two years. Not wanting to be outdone, The Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography has sprung for quite a few more than that.

"The more I get involved in the seascapes, the more I find there. I never get tired of it," smiles Sugimoto. Smart in a black jacket, the grey-haired artist is playing host, decanting white wine to well-dressed local friends and supporters, and the curiously large number of glittering French freeloaders in attendance at the Koyanagi opening party.

"My standard style is sharp photographs," he explains, indicating several Sagami Bay pictures on the galleryís south wall, "but recently Iíve been experimenting with intentionally out-of-focus shots. I set up the position of the film and lens of my camera so that the focal point is twice the point of infinity [hence the exhibition title]. Of course, this is very technical and impossible, but I can set my camera this way and it becomes an ideal only the camera can see, so the result is that nothing is sharp. Itís very painterly, and I donít know how much further I can go with it."

The blurry works hanging on the galleryís north wall present Sugimotoís new seascape abstractions.

Behind the Koyanagiís green frosted glass facade, more wine flows and a happy homecoming swirls around Sugimotoís "Twice as Infinity." The woman Sugimotoís calls his "girlfriend," gallery owner Atsuko Koyanagi pauses when asked what attracts her to the works. "The beauty," she answers, "and the light."

Sugimotoís is a light that lives in unfrothing waves and cloudless skies - it quietly seduces and enchants. Linger in front of these pictures and it becomes easier to appreciate the motivation of those New Yorkers sifting through Sugimotoís refuse for an opportunity to gaze through the artistís eyes.

If I were a bit richer, Iíd buy one of his windows.


notes: Until Nov 22, 1997 (3561-1896).
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