The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) presents Andreas Gursky, on view from February 15 through June 1, 2003. Organized by Peter Galassi, chief curator, Department of Photography, Museum of Modern Art, New York, the exhibition presents more than 40 photographs dating from 1984 to the present. The SFMOMA presentation is organized by Douglas R. Nickel, SFMOMA curator of photography.
From Tokyo to New York, Paris, Brasília, Cairo, Shanghai, Los Angeles, Stockholm, Bonn, Hong Kong and elsewhere, Gursky has sought out signs of our times—vast hotel lobbies, apartment buildings, warehouses, sporting championships, parliaments, international stock exchanges and massive techno-music raves. His large photographs, some as wide as 16 feet, saturated with color and detail, present a stunning image of a world transformed by the high-tech industry, global markets, easy travel and slick commerce.
Gursky was born in 1955 in Leipzig, Germany, and grew up in Düsseldorf, where he was introduced to photography at a young age by his father, a successful commercial photographer. In the late 1970s he studied at the Folkwangschule in Essen, West Germany’s leading school of traditional photography. In the early 1980s, he entered the class of Bernd Becher at the Kunstakademie in Düsseldorf, where he earned the distinction Meisterschüler, or master student, in 1987.
Gursky at first adopted a style and method closely modeled on the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher—a systematic, impersonal approach inspired by both Minimalism and Conceptualism—except Gursky worked only in color. His most successful student project was an extended series of sober, uniformly composed photographs of security guards in the lobbies of office buildings. In 1984, however, Gursky began to free himself from the strict Becher model. He reverted to the unstructured method of spontaneous observation that he had pursued at the Folkwangschule, making a series of pictures of hikers, swimmers, tourists and other groups at leisure. Gursky’s pristine, light-filled vistas, such as Klausenpass, 1984, drew upon the recent work of Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and other young Americans, whose detailed views of ordinary places had helped to launch a lively movement of color photography in the 1970s.
Even as the new American color work helped Gursky to chart a path away from the Becherses influence, their lessons persisted through his adherence to an unvarying pictorial type—a broad prospect populated by tiny figures who are surveyed by a godlike eye that is everywhere and nowhere at once. As Gursky repeated this pattern of artistic development in the years to come, responding to a widening range of imagery and ideas without wholly abandoning his earlier attachments, the resilient core of his work became more and more his own.
Toward the end of the 1980s, Gursky’s hikers and tourists tended to dwindle in number to one or just a few, and so the viewer’s detached scrutiny of a remote crowd was transformed into sympathetic identification with a solitary being. Pictures such as Ruhr Valley, 1989, in which a lone figure is dwarfed by his surroundings, evokes the stirring emotion of landscapes by Caspar David Friedrich and other masters of German Romanticism. But Gursky’s crisply focused color photographs of familiar scenes also recall cheap picture postcards. His hybrid art welcomes associations with both the grand and the ordinary, tapping the reservoir of images that we all carry in our heads.
Gursky’s work took a decisive turn in 1990 when, on a trip to Japan, he made a photograph of the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The picture was modeled in part on a newspaper photograph that Gursky had noticed before leaving Düsseldorf. Henceforth the habit of spontaneous observation, associated with Gursky’s schooling at Essen, took second place to elaborate advance planning for a preconceived image, designed to embody a concept, such as the global financial market. The new approach was closer to the calculated methods of the Bechers—and of commercial photographers such as Gursky’s father—than to the prevailing conventions of documentary photography. Before 1987, when a stipend from the Kunstakademie freed him to concentrate on his own work, Gursky had executed a number of commercial assignments himself. His professional skill, and his mastery of the slick vocabulary of advertising photography, served him well as he began to define his vision of the contemporary zeitgeist.
That vision developed rapidly after 1991, when Gursky was invited to participate in an ambitious photographic project sponsored by the German industrial giant Siemens. Many of the Siemens factories he visited struck him as old-fashioned, and it is revealing of Gursky’s growing confidence that pictures such as Siemens, Karlsruhe, 1991, despite their wealth of detail, are not so much earnest documents as artful refinements of an idealized fiction of technological wonderment.
During the early 1990s, Gursky traveled more widely in search of up-to-date subjects—huge office and apartment buildings, trading floors, airports, major sporting events—in which the anonymous individual, overwhelmed by the impersonal environment, is but one among many. Summarized in words, Gursky’s themes of the 1990s are as familiar as “globalization” for the process that has created a seamless realm of abundant goods, inescapable brand names, massive gatherings, regimented grids and sparkling surfaces. Gursky’s originality lies in the vividness with which he has distilled striking and inventive pictures from the plenitude of the commercialized image-world.
In the late 1980s, Gursky, Thomas Ruff, Thomas Struth and other Becher students had rapidly achieved recognition in a burgeoning art world newly responsive to photography. Their unanticipated prominence enabled them to print their photographs much larger, allowing them to compete with painters and sculptors. In Gursky’s case, that competition helped to further broaden and enrich his art.
In 1993 Gursky made Untitled I, a photograph of the gallery floor of the Kunsthalle in Düsseldorf, a radically empty picture, describing nothing more than gray carpet and the space it defines. In one sense, it was an homage to the long series of monochrome gray paintings that Gerhard Richter had begun in the late 1960s. At the same time, it is quintessentially photographic—an unbroken gradient of texture, receding from bottom to top of the picture. Ever since, Gursky has progressively explored a constellation of touchstones in the history of older and more recent art—the broad landscapes of Friedrich, the abstract works of Jackson Pollock and the geometric and intellectual rigors of Minimalism and conceptual art. He has used these precedents to extend the rich tradition of photographic description. In Autobahn, Mettman, 1993, a minimalist ladder of crisp aluminum strips has been superimposed upon a pastoral field of brushwork by John Constable. The picture is also a striking record of spontaneous perception, which viscerally locates the viewer on the expressway overpass from which it was made.
By the mid-1990s Gursky’s arsenal of contemporary motifs, artistic allusions and formal strategies had reached a critical mass that fostered a network of family relationships among otherwise distinct images and themes. The uninterrupted ceiling of Brasília, General Assembly I, 1994, simultaneously echoes the allover abstraction of Untitled I and the geometric grid of artificial light in Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank, 1994. The collective frenzy of Tokyo Stock Exchange, 1990, reappears as a midnight rave in May Day IV, 2000. Rhine II, 1999, a sweeping hymn to the ancient river that runs through Düsseldorf, is a cousin to Prada II, 1999, a pastel image of consumer fetishism reduced to the bare essentials.
In the 1990s Gursky further expanded his art by incorporating digital manipulation into his working methods. He used the computer at first only as a retouching tool but soon began to redeploy the raw material of his negatives with imaginative, and sometimes flamboyant freedom. The imposing frontal symmetry of pictures such as Paris, Montparnasse, 1993, Untitled V, 1997, and Shanghai, 2000, is the product of an inventive merger of straightforward description and digital invention. Nevertheless, these creations are entirely at home with works such as Schiphol, 1994, Engadine, 1995, and Untitled VI, 1997, in which digital mischief plays no role at all. Taken as a whole, Gursky’s work seems to demonstrate that photography never tells the truth, only so as to probe the reality quotient of its hyperbolic lies.
Gursky’s formal experiments, his responsiveness to a wide variety of other images, and the powerful presence of his finished works are rewarding in themselves. They are, moreover, part and parcel of an original and compelling engagement with the here and now.
Andreas Gursky is made possible by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment Fund. The accompanying publication is made possible by the John Szarkowski Publications Fund. The exhibition tour is organized under the auspices of The International Council of The Museum of Modern Art.