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Andreas Gursky In The Void

by Wyatt Mason

A review of:
Andreas Gursky
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
March 4-May 15 2001
Andreas Gursky
by Peter Galassi
MoMA/Abrams, 196pp., $65/$35

In Craig Raine’s 1979 poem, "A Martian Sends a Postcard Home," the poet adopts the guise of an extraterrestrial visitor whose observations about human activity are filtered through a vocabulary missing certain familiar terms. The poem begins:

Caxtons are mechanical birds with many wings
and some are treasured for their markings–
they cause the eyes to melt
or the body to shriek without pain.
I have never seen one fly, but
sometimes they perch on the hand.

"Caxtons" comes from William Caxton (1422-1491), the first English printer and bookmaker, thus the Martian’s confused appropriation of a word for "those mechanical birds," books, that "cause the eyes to melt/or the body to shriek without pain," to cry or laugh. Reading this poem, and the verse, "I have never seen one fly, but/ sometimes they perch on the hand," is to revisit the familiar world rendered new again, as on the first day of creation, when book and bird, not yet named, might well have seemed closest kin.

Raine’s poem and its overarching metaphor is an intensification of the artmaking process: artists make the world anew. It is an old story to say that there are only so many stories, and, by extension, only so many things to describe. And yet, artists barrel forward indefatigably in the face of the familiar, by rendering it all gloriously strange once again.

Andreas Gursky. Paris, Montparnasse. 1993. Lent by the artist, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, and Monika Sprčth Galerie, Cologne ę 2001 Andreas Gursky.

The familiar and its vertiginous disassociation from the too well-known is the pivot around which the work of contemporary German photographer Andreas Gursky spins. Born in 1955 in Leipzig, Gursky, not yet 50, is being crowned by the artistic papal see as one of the most important artists working today, and, as such, is poised to leap into the collective consciousness fully-formed, trailing a mythology appropriate to his ascendance. For Gursky, like a child raised in the woods of the world by wolves, is a fine art photographer reared in a coven of commercial photographers: his father, his mother, his father’s father–all successful shooters. In this age when commercial photography has appropriated the world’s every object from the innocuous (a lush wilderness might be used to promote the ecological consciousness of an oil company) to the infernal (a death-row inmate to promote a clothing manufacturer’s political awareness), the task of artistically remaking that world of commodified images is doubly difficult. Who better then to confront the ambiguity, compromise and confusion of images in this age of the image than an evacuee from the shores of its corrupters?

Andreas Gursky. Shanghai. 2000. Lent by the artist, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, and Monika Sprčth Galerie, Cologne. ę 2001 Andreas Gursky

"I grew up in this atmosphere of a professional advertising studio," Gursky recently remarked in a New Yorker profile, "and I was sure I never wanted to be a photographer." And yet, on March 4th, New York’s Museum of Modern art opened an exhibition of forty five of Gursky’s photographs that will subsequently bounce between the world’s top museums well into next year, accompanied by a book whose relevance to the contents of the exhibition is far more than commemorative. Peter Galassi, the gifted chief curator of photography at MoMA who, in addition to mounting the show with Gursky’s full collaboration, also wrote the text of the catalogue, said at the opening: "[Gursky’s photographs are] the most self-assured pictures in the world." One is eager to see precisely what Gursky has been up to that warrants the red carpet.

It's hard to miss: the photographs, for the most part, are huge. All of Gursky’s work from the 1990’s is oversized, some of his pictures stretching to sixteen feet in width. An emblematic image is his Rhine II (1999). Standing at the far wall opposite this seven foot high, eleven foot wide image, one has the sensation of looking at a Rothko stretched to double it’s customary girth, as if fattened up for slaughter: six parallel swaths of varying thicknesses and colors extend horizontally before us. The upper half of the image is a pale grey-white, and the lower consists of three rich bands of green broken by single silver and steel-grey stripes. There is a calm that presides over the abstraction, a calm in no way diminished when one begins to approach the picture and its details emerge: for we are not looking at an abstraction at all, rather the river Rhine, its marbled silver flow, its lush green banks, its steel-grey runners’ path, its pale cloudy sky. In the upper distance, a stairway links bank to clouds. The compression of foreground and back creates a visual peculiarity: stylistically, this riverscape has its feet simultaneously on the opposite shores of abstraction and representation.

This view is typical of what Gursky does best: create a highly formalized image that verges on abstraction while simultaneously depicting the visible world. Rhine II is the view of a river that one might have, had one never seen a river before. Since we all have become so sophisticated as to know precisely what a river should look like, it becomes, therefore, a view of a river that forces us to reconsider, and re-feel, just what we have here.

The picture is also typical, readers may learn, of Gursky’s method: the image has been radically altered on computer. The actual view, if one visits the site of the photograph, contains a factory with a smokestack as well as other buildings. One would not know that this particular picture has been altered without the catalogue or the New Yorker. The single wall gloss that accompanies the show at its entrance does, however, signal viewers that many of the images they will encounter within, however pure they may appear, have been extensively manipulated on the computer.

That we are alerted to this everywhere-present but nowhere-identifiable authorial hand indicates that it is believed by curator and artist to be of relevance to our viewing of the images. It is meant, I sense, to tacitly argue the seriousness of Gursky’s artistry, offering up hidden hard work as proof of rigor, a verbal x-ray of the underpainting that unveils the artist’s earlier struggles towards truth. Such information, I think, risks upsetting the equilibrium already negotiated between painting and photography in an art world that took slowly to letting photography into the club with more than a day pass. That is to say I think that knowing Gursky has fudged his images in Photoshop is of no importance, just as it is fundamentally not essential to know that Rembrandt had originally painted that arm over there before deciding to put it here. For the alteration of photographic originals is nothing new, is as old as photography, as Susan Sontag relates in On Photography:

A German photographer invented the first technique for retouching the negative. His two versions of the same portrait–one retouched, the other not–astounded crowds at the Exposition Universelle held in Paris in 1855... The news that the camera could lie made getting photographed much more popular.

And, it seems, continues to, despite being very old news. We've become entirely accustomed to the idea that, like words, all images lie. For if Gursky’s image of a river is interesting, and it is, no discussion of methods needs be in the foreground. And it is not that Rhine II is merely beautiful ("To experience a thing as beautiful means to experience it necessarily wrongly," wrote Nietzsche). It is beautiful, but beauty in photography requires few tricks and little ability. What is most notable about Rhine II is what is least articulable: the image possesses an inherent strangeness often found in lasting art, a peculiarity which draws the viewer back again to find what is findable no where else. Just the sort of postcard a Martian might send home.

Andreas Gursky. 99 Cent. 1999. Lent by the artist, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, and Monika Sprčth Galerie, Cologne ę 2001 Andreas Gursky.

99 Cent (1999) is another lasting image from the show, again a formally horizontal work, its parallel lines not devoted to the natural, but to the un: a terrifyingly well-ordered array of products in a ninety-nine cent store on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Those items closest to us are nearly life sized–boxes of bars of candy: Kit-Kats, Mounds, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. But as the shelves stretch deeply into the distant background of store and photograph, abstraction takes hold and the neatly labeled packets become pockets of color produced by identical products endlessly arrayed, reflecting off the shiny ceiling and playing the same game of surface and depth at work in Monet’s late water-lily works. In 99 Cent, unlike Rhine II, people populate the picture, heads poking up between the isles, as heedless of the photographer as distant revelers in a landscape by Claude, or, for that matter, a river between its banks. Consumerism in all its terrifying glory is presented with an uninflected flatness that accentuates the inherent oddity of a way of life to which we have grown cozily accustomed.

99 Cent and Rhine II are the purest images in the show, purest in the sense that they do not stylistically depend upon antecedents for their expressive power, managing instead to remake the familiar with an off-kilter visual vocabulary all their own. Many other images in the show draw more purposefully on the visual language of commercial photography, whether of journalism and advertising, and here’s where the going gets rough. For the science of manipulating images in advertising has become as sophisticated in its wordless inculcations of message as were the walls of renaissance churches. Giotto’s fresci in the Arena Chapel, which bring the life of Christ to vivid shape, were painted precisely for the parishioner who could not read the good book from which they came. Thus, the passion was told or sold through a series of images. If we agree that Giotto’s efforts are Art, what, one wonders, differentiates them from the billboards of today? What is to separate the so-called advertising image from its fine-art counterpart?

Andreas Gursky. Tokyo Stock Exchange. 1990. Lent by the artist, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, and Monika Sprčth Galerie, Cologne ę 2001 Andreas Gursky.

Tokyo Stock Exchange (1990) is an overhead view of the stock exchange floor: we see hundreds of Japanese faces in the midst of buying and selling and moving money. The image is one of the sort we have seen before in Time and, for that matter, in Benetton ads. Gursky himself has said that the image was inspired by and adapted from an image he had seen in a newspaper in Germany. It is doubtless a very good picture of a stock exchange, however were it to run in Newsweek or on a billboard stamped "Prada," I suspect we wouldn’t give it a second thought. But here, on the walls of a museum, blown up to five by six feet, we are asked to think about it. And staring at its surface, attempting to find something within it that would attract me as Rhine II and 99 Cent do, I can’t. It doesn’t seem any different, beyond its size, from images drawn from advertising or journalism, and while it is doubtless pleasant to consider, it carries with it none of the shock of reinvention of Rhine II and 99 Cent. Tokyo Stock Exchange is static and obvious and were it the only such example of a journalistic/advertising image, an advertising for a way of life no one could possibly covet, its clear referencing of commercial style could serve a limited, post-modern end of the sort provided by Jeff Koons. But Gursky has many such pictures of crowds. Chicago Board of Trade II (1999), Parliament (2000), Tote Hosen (2000) and assorted May Day celebrations are all variations on a theme that has, to these eyes, neither the delicate tension between the abstract and the realistic of Rhine II, nor the subversive blitheness of 99 Cent. Rather, they offer little beyond a memorializing of the bland truth that modern life gathers great groups together in soullessly anonymous activity.

Untitled XII (1) (1999), offers a vertical, five by seven foot image of a single page of a book in German. We see the woodgrain of the table upon which the book, open, rests; the beige fringe of the cloth binding; the blinding white page; the black type; the page number, 753; and the slim shadow beneath the binding. It is, a big photo, of a book. We might try to salvage it by getting fancy: we could talk about the ordered horizontality of the text, its structural similarity to 99 Cent, but in which the shelves of this edifice are stocked not with perishable sweets, but with more durable, alphabetical goods etc. Staring perplexedly at this image, I thought about curator Galassi having mentioned that another notable aspect of Gursky’s talent resides in how "funny some of his pictures are:" great art, with a sense of humor. Looking at Untitled XII, and wondering if perhaps this might be an instance of such whimsy, I was reassured by a line from Elvis Costello’s epic "Man Out of Time," the protagonist of which has "a German sense of humor." Well, perhaps.

But surely the strangest item in the show is Gursky’s just-completed diptych, Stockholder Meetings (2001). Here, the artist’s interest in photomanipulation and montage in on clear view, beyond any doubt, in which the impaneled boards of directors of fourteen multinational concerns are superimposed upon a craggy cliffside, floating above an audience of stockholders. High above all of them, in a neatly staggered line, the corporate insignias of each of the boards stand out boldly against a gunmetal sky. The overall effect is perplexingly goofy. Galassi has said iit is daring to expose such a new work in such a big show, and that the image, so fresh is it in his mind, hasn’t begun to sink in, that he, and we, can’t really see it yet.

Whatever one thinks of Stockholder Meetings, Galassi’s point is dead on. Ezra Pound, among his many illuminating pensums on art, wrote that the artist is the antenna of the race, by which he meant that in the present, most of us only see what is before us, whereas the artist is receiving signals from the future about how we will be seen a hundred years hence, and thus is busy creating those works which will forever define an opaque present destined to lapse into an all-too-clear past. But the difficulty with that dictum as it relates to Gursky is how relentlessly patent, if not blatant, much of his work already appears.

Andreas Gursky. May Day IV. 2000. Lent by the artist, courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, and Monika Sprčth Galerie, Cologne ę 2001 Andreas Gursky.

Repeatedly we are confronted with images of disconnect en masse–a building full of office workers isolated in their cubicles, a library filled with books but devoid of people, a hotel atrium whose rectilinearity seems perfectly at odds with its intended purpose. They are advertisements for a world no one would visit and yet in which everyone lives. Fair enough. How compelling they will seem a hundred years from now cannot be the subject of this inquiry. What can be said is that the show is uneven in the best sense, showing an artist capable of reinventing the visual world with the machine most responsible for its liquidation of sense. That alone makes it mandatory viewing.

My biggest concern, then, regards the matter of the monumentality of the images. I have before me slides of Rhine II and 99 Cent, two massive pictures in their museum versions. As I hold them squintily to the window, though much of the detail of the images is lost, the impact of the whole is retained: diminished size does not seem to affect them negatively, any more than my first seeing Terrence Mallick’s Days of Heaven on a 12" black and white television diminished the power of that most cinematic of experiences. In this age of supersized everything, from the Big Gulp to the Hummer, I can see no empirical need for the bigness of Gursky’s pictures, beyond the recently realized technological capacity for them: many of his pictures do no better bigger than in the reasonably-sized reproductions of the vivid catalog.

Staring at such pictures on view at MoMA, and then appreciating them at home with the reproductions, one is forced to consider the recent rash of monumentality that has overtaken the Fine Arts, whether the giant canvasses of Baselitz and Kiefer, or Jenny Saville’s recent paintings–dwarfing her contributions to the "Sensation" show–which offer little beyond their proportions, taking lessons learned from Lucien Freud and rewriting them in epic, feminist voice. One thinks of ancient Egypt or any imperial reign in which monuments are erected to inspire doses of awe and fear in equal measure in those who see them. Size is the easiest way to impress, and to distract from the essentially unimpressive. Gursky’s best work doesn’t play such games, succeeding independent of technology to the degree that one ceases to look at them as photographs at all, except when they look only like photographs, no matter their size.


Wyatt Mason's writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Harper's, The Nation, The Los Angeles Times, McSweeney's and many other publications. His latest book is Rimbaud Complete, a new translation of the complete works of Arthur Rimbaud, published by Modern Library.