Andreas Gursky @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 14 color photographic works, generally framed in light wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a series of three gallery spaces and the entry area.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 10 inkjet print and Diasec, 2018, 2020, 2021, 2022, sized roughly 120×81, 120×93, 120×94, 80×161, 84×160, 94×133, 94×161, 94×181 inches, in editions of 6
  • 1 inkjet print, 2020, sized roughly 30×25 inches, in an edition of 12
  • 1 inkjet print diptych, 2020, each sized roughly 30×25 inches, in an edition of 12
  • 1 chromogenic print, 2020, sized roughly 51×63 inches, in an edition of 12
  • 1 chromogenic print diptych, 2018, each sized roughly 39×38 inches, in an edition of 12

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Now that we have reached more than two decades into the 21st century, the history books outlining the arc of late 20th century photography have largely been written, and Andreas Gursky’s enduring contributions to the medium are well understood. Along with several of his artistic colleagues at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Gursky boldly redefined the limits of scale in photography, making monumental photographs that could rival the very largest wall-filling paintings from the 18th and 19th centuries. Starting in the 1990s and continuing on through to the present, Gursky has told panoramic visual stories, using precise digital manipulation to enhance and amplify his compositions, clarifying them to the point that they settle into a zone of impossible but plausibly ambiguous hyper-reality. Often laced with a subtle undercurrent of social critique, Gursky’s most successful images are seductively expansive, drawing us into sprawling scenes that feel poised on an edge of unseen tension.

It’s been half a dozen years since Gurksy’s last gallery show in New York (in 2016, reviewed here), and while the photographer’s fundamental style hasn’t changed over that time, the mood of the pandemic lingers over several of the images made in the past few years. But this isn’t really a pandemic show per se; it spreads into multiple heterogeneous directions simultaneously, finding Gursky exploring a range of individual image ideas without being bounded by the confines of a single overarching project that neatly links them all together.

The marquee image from this show comes in the form of a new variant of Gursky’s now-iconic images of the Rhine river. “Rhein I” arrived in 1996, and reduced the river view to horizontal strips of elemental green and grey; “Rhein II” came along a few years later and elongated the composition further, widening it out horizontally, which made its nearly abstract Barnett Newman-like lines even more pronounced. The second version went on to achieve the highest price ever paid for a photograph at auction (in 2011, for roughly $4.3M), which was only recently bested this year by a vintage image by Man Ray. As seen here, “Rhein III” keeps the extra-wide perspective of “Rhein II”, but switches the color palette to yellow grass (caused by summer drought conditions) and darker grey water. The streamlined elegance of the earlier masterpiece is retained, but Gursky has subtly altered the mood, adding an undercurrent of very real climate change to the freight this famous composition already carries.

Gursky’s image of the salt flats at Las Salinas Natural Park in Ibiza plays with a similar elongated linear structure. While countless tourists have likely captured this picturesque location at sunset, Gursky attempts to make it his own by turning it into a spread silhouette, with dark land forms on the two sides and strips of black that define the salt ponds running straight across the frame. Muted gradient layers of color (from the sunset) are stacked both up and down via the reflection in the still water, and a single white contrail stretches across the otherwise clear sky, creating yet another horizontal line and boldly interrupting the tranquility of the moment. While tiny flamingoes and birds can be discovered in an up-close inspection of the picture, “Salinas” functions better stepped back much further, where the view coalesces into another Gursky exercise in abstracting the land into simplified lines. It’s hard to fight the clichéd mood of such a sunset, but Gursky nearly pulls it off with the unexpected (and quietly unsettling) slash through the sky.

Other works on view find Gursky riffing on subjects he’s explored before. In “Streif”, Gursky shows us a stretch of steeply pitched downhill race course at Kitzbühel, in Austria, with blue paint and orange netting defining the path down the hill. Gursky has made images of race courses before, perhaps most memorably in Bahrain, where he encouraged curving strips of roadway to spin through the desert. Here the spectacle of winter sport is muscular and grand, but also strangely intrusive and commercial, with billboards and video screens perched at each turn and the course scratched through the otherwise idyllic mountain landscape.

The sleek surfaces of technology and luxury (another long-time Gursky favorite) provide the German photographer with a range of additional visual possibilities. He revels in the machined glow of the golden wall at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Las Vegas, its woven-looking texture offering a stylized facsimile of reality. Even more polished and reflective is a curving view of the Apple headquarters in Cupertino, California, with eerie pedestals honoring some of Jony Ive’s revolutionary designs. A Viktor & Rolf fashion show provides Gursky with a catwalk scene, which he has turned into an uncanny march of relentless modern anonymity, the models striding through impenetrable darkness as though on an assembly line or conveyor belt. And Gursky has digitally intervened in a frontal view of the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank building, adding a cascade of contemporary words referencing everything from immigration and global warming to the pandemic, attempting to echo Jenny Holzer’s inspired use of language, but with less incisive bite.

At first glance, two other massive works feel like homages to particular artists, but then quickly recede from this literalness into Gursky’s own unique interpretations of art historical tropes. “Eisläufer” seems to re-invent classic winter ice skating scenes, where dozens of figures skate along the frozen canals of Holland; in this case, Gursky has documented the frozen floods of the nearby Rhine, which created impromptu ponds and skate paths of ice in the riverside parks. His composition is vast and seemingly endlessly engaging, with tiny clusters of families dotting the landscape like a dense Peter Brueghel painting; made in 2021, the figures are wearing masks and might even be social distancing, adding another plague-like reverberation across artistic time. “Bauhaus” makes another compositional reference, this time to Ed Ruscha’s mid 1960s image of a Standard gas station. In Gursky’s version, the blocky form of the warehouse is almost a direct match for Ruscha’s angled geometries, all the way down to the dark top edge of the building and the posts that dot the fence in front. What’s different is the conceptual twist of the Bauhaus, mixing the famous art school (and its machined design aesthetic) with the modern German home improvement retailer of the same name.

That Gursky can continue to refine his craft and deliver compositions worthy of their extraordinary scale isn’t at all a given, and his last two shows have offered clumps of impressive works that have challenged and extended his aesthetics. Gursky’s works at smaller scale haven’t fared as well, their more intimate ideas providing an important counterweight against a tendency toward swaggering grandiosity, but ultimately feeling less representative of his talents. So while we often measure the output of contemporary photographers by projects consisting of dozens of images or photobooks with 50 or even 100 pictures in them, if Gursky can find his way to a handful of durable winners every few years, he’d still be moving ahead at an enviable artistic pace. It’s an ambitious mode of working that encourages (and requires) consistently swinging for the fences, and at this stage in his career, Gurksy has become a photographic slugger (to push the baseball metaphor one step further), with the crowd cheering every time one of his towering artistic rockets sails into the stands.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced based on size, with the smaller works/diptychs ranging between €18000 and €90000, and the larger works ranging between €400000 and €900000, with the price of “Rhein III” unspecified. Gursky’s prints are routinely available in the secondary markets. While some Gursky prints in large editions can be found for under $10000, most prints start at roughly $50000 and work their way up to over $1 million, with a small handful bumping up into the $2 million and $3 million ranges.

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JTF (just the facts): Self-published in 2023 (here). Hardcover, 285 x 235 mm, 112 pages, with 55 black-and-white reproductions. Includes a short afterword by the artist and a list of ... Read on.

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