JTF (just the facts): A total of 13 large scale color works, framed in brown wood and unmatted, and hung in a pair of divided gallery spaces. There are 6 works from the Bangkok series in the left hand gallery. These are inkjet prints, each sized 121×89 or 121×93, printed in editions of 6, and made in 2011. There are 7 works from the Oceans series in the right hand gallery. These are c-prints, sized 134×98, 137×98, or 96×179 (or reverse), also printed in editions of 6, and made in 2010. A catalog is available from the Gagosian shop for $120 (here). No photography is allowed in the galleries, so the installation shots at right come from the Gagosian website.
Comments/Context: Since I have a significant amount of respect for the outstanding and innovative work of the German photographer Andreas Gursky, the easiest thing to do in this review would be to fall in line with the rest of the sycophantic, fawning critics and tell you that these new works are equally as astonishing and groundbreaking as many of his true and undeniable masterpieces. But the fact is, they are not. There, I’ve said it: the emperor (and he is undeniably the emperor of contemporary photography) has no clothes, at least at the moment.
Of the two new bodies of work on view in this show, the Oceans series has more to recommend it. Using satellite imagery, Gursky has stitched together omniscient view, weather-less composite images of the world’s oceans, large expanses of blue with fragments of more recognizable continents and land masses intruding on the edges. These works are printed at such a gargantuan scale that they envelop the viewer, drawing us into the depths of the wide seas. I like the conceptual inversion going on here, where Gursky is capturing the negative space of the globe, upending our education about what the continents are supposed to look like. If someone asked me “what is the shape of South America?”, I could immediately bring a decently accurate image to my mind’s eye; ask me “what is the shape of the Pacific Ocean?”, and I’d be a bit stumped. Gurksy’s photographs flatten out the roundness of the globe, tweaking the distortions for broadening effect; the oceans are huge, engulfing, and somehow new. That said, the major innovation here is the monumental scale; if these pictures were 20×24, we’d all say ho hum and think they were intriguing if forgettable scientific shots from National Geographic. And so while this explosion of size does change our perception of the content, the whole group comes off a bit flat for me (no pun intended), especially when seen as a series; perhaps staged as a single image dwarfing a low ceilinged room of other art, one of these Oceans might be a bit more powerful.
Gursky’s newest series of Bangkok water abstractions is, I’m very sorry to report, simply dreadful; the folks at Gagosian must have cringed when they saw that this was the work that would inaugurate their new representation relationship. The works are dark bodies of reflected water, where the refractions shatter into abstract fragments of light. More than a few have heavy-handed gestural references to the AbEx masters (Newman and Still are seen repeatedly), with zips and flames dancing through the blackness. These oil slick reflections are interrupted by small pieces of digital debris: clumps of greenery, plastic shampoo bottles, and other snippets of trash and pollution that float into the painterly abstractions, mixing a kind of real world truth into the swaths of energetic pigment. While I intellectually understand the conceptual dichotomy Gursky is going for (beauty and ugliness intertwined), the fact is that photographic reflections on water have been done endlessly; recently by artists like Jessica Backhaus (Venice canals), but also by every amateur photographer in the world (including myself). Once again, excessive scale is the only thing that changes the game here; not only are these pictures visually lifeless, they don’t tell us anything new. I expect much more from Gursky, and to say I was underwhelmed by these images is a significant understatement; mostly I was just bored.
On its visual merits alone, this show could have conceivably earned my first zero star review in the history of this site, which pains me severely given my love for Gursky’s previous work. That said, after much reflection, I think it jumps just barely to the one star category, mostly because I would recommend seeing this work to consider for yourself how one of our most shining stars could swing and miss so egregiously.
Collector’s POV: The prints from the Bangkok series are priced at 400000 Euros each, while the prints from the Oceans series are generally 450000 Euros, with the exception of the largest panoramic work which is 500000 Euros. Gursky’s works are routinely among the most expensive photographs available in the secondary markets, consistently fetching upwards of $1 million dollars at auction. His Rhein II recently broke the record for the most expensive photograph ever sold at auction, topping $4.3 million.