Andreas Gursky, Not Abstract II @Gagosian

JTF (just the facts): A total of 20 color photographs, variously framed and unmatted, and hung on the four walls and both sides of two partitions in the main gallery, as well as in a small room on the north side. The works on view are a mix 11 inkjet prints and 9 c-prints, most made in the last three years, but two date from 1999 and another from 2008. Sizes range from 24×31 inches to 134×98 inches, and the prints are available in editions of 6 to 12 with 2 AP. The exhibition is punctuated in certain spots by a sound installation of electronic music by DJ and producer Richie Hawtin. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Since his MoMA retrospective in 2001, Andreas Gursky can’t astonish us easily anymore. The digital precision and enormous scale of his prints, while no longer as enviously aped by the young as 5 years ago, cleared enough ground that audiences can immediately tell if someone is encroaching on his territory. Even his mediocre Gagosian shows over the last decade have usually featured at least one or two eye-poppers. What seems to worry him most these days is how to keep making pictures that are more than exercises in virtuosity, which means finding a larger frame to put around his career.

Not Abstract II is the perfect title and solution to this dilemma, both as a nondescript negative description of his POV toward his own efforts and as a philosophic cri de coeur. “My photographs are ‘not abstract’” he declares in the press release. “Ultimately they are always identifiable. Photography cannot disengage from the subject.”

As if to underscore this point, he has selected here more than a few photographs of paintings and sculptures. His close-up section of a Van Gogh canvas, for instance, reveals that the Dutch artist’s golden wheat field is nothing but brushed yellow oil paint: Gursky’s camera can’t withdraw from its mission to dispel illusion and break down its elements into material facts. He couldn’t be “abstract” even if he wanted to.

At the same time, he knows that his career has thrived on this ambiguity. He has designed his photographs to resemble and compete with Abstract Expressionist masterworks. Like his friend Gerhard Richter, who has digitally scanned his own abstract paintings to make “abstract” photographs, Gursky has for many years explored the on-again, off-again love affair between the two media. He photographed Turner paintings in 1999 and, like Richter, maintains the flirtatious relationship as a spur to create new work.

Several of Gursky’s images in Bangkok and Oceans, his 2011 exhibition at Gagosian, brought out the affinities the natural world could have—when artfully cropped—with paintings by Barnett Newman and Clyfford Still. In two works here, Amazon and MediaMarkt (both 2016), where hundred of items for sale or distribution by these e-commerce giants are rendered in bewildering detail, Gursky’s photographs suggest that Pop Art and Color Field painting had more in common that some critics supposed at the time. Both photographs of rampant consumerism are made up of zips, lines, blobs, rectangles, or touches of color. Lichtenstein and Rosenquist also had fun dematerializing realism and exposing the mechanics behind pictorial conventions. Gursky and Richter, even though coming from different disciplines, have enjoyed crossing over and playing on each other’s side of the street. (Amazon is also a gift for American historians of the future, who should have a blast analyzing each square inch of the print and imagining the customers who ordered books on horses and mathematics, along with throwing axes and anti-slip bathmats.)

One of the welcome features of this latest self-selection by Gursky is its heterogeneity. Neither the subjects nor the scale of the prints are uniform, and his automatic impulse is no longer to inspire awe, as it so often has been in the past. He has included two small images from 2016 on the front wall that were taken on his phone. The scenes in Mobile No. 1 and Mobile No. 2 are hard to discern. Are we at the back edges of someone’s studio, at an airport, or in some other in-between or waiting space?

It turns out they are “accidents,” digital noise. Which doesn’t mean that our minds don’t try to decipher their meaning or place them within a larger context. They are photographs and, as such they cannot “disengage” and neither can we.

Gursky is at his most tedious these days when abstracting nature or industry. Rhein II may be a masterpiece, but his tulip fields here (2016)—rows of flowers photographed from on high so that they resemble secreted lines of colored paint or a Missoni sweater—are like Burtynsky squared. They don’t relay anything new about the frightening efficiency of mass production or the dangers of conformity that we haven’t seen (and been warned about by folk singers) many times since the 1950s. Aerial perspective can add intrigue to the dullest photographs, which is why the trick is beloved by simpletons and should be sparingly applied by others.

Storage (2015), his enormous (84×160) photograph of the white lattices on which museums store wall texts or pictures, is similarly hampered by its clever allusions. After noting the resemblance of these racks to a Sol LeWitt, our thoughts can’t expand much further. Qatar (2012) is another dazzling picture. It depicts the octagonal copper-walled bowels of a storage vessel and the lone pillow where a ghostly attendant sleeps. But unlike early Gursky photographs of Hyatt hotel atria, the social critique is missing. Why has this Middle East kingdom commissioned a humble ship with touches of such splendor? Is the metal cladding practical in some way that he was unable to portray?

What these pictures fail to deliver can be found in Review (2015). Another masterwork, it’s a portrait of four German chancellors—Gerhard Schröder, Helmut Schmidt, Angela Merkel, and Helmut Kohl—sitting with their backs to us in black leather chairs as they inspect Barnett Newman’s wall-sized red painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis from MoMA.

A glass wall separates them from Gursky’s camera. It’s not clear if they are aware of him; what they’re doing there isn’t explained either. The scene isn’t openly satiric, and yet it’s somehow ridiculous and savage as a study of the corporate respectability bestowed upon modern and contemporary art. A deadpan picture of a picture, it’s a group portrait of four German leaders (from the Reagan era to the Obama years) dwarfed by a post-war American painting. The four “critics” would be skewered by Otto Dix or George Grosz; and the puff of smoke from Schmidt’s cigar seems to have drifted in from a Max Beckman self-portrait. Only a German artist with Gursky’s clout would have been able to witness this scene and only one who grew up in these years would be able to tease out the connections.

Gursky must be aware that his own work is achieving the same epic status and proportions as Newman’s. In a couple of years a group of powerful Americans—an entourage of Trumps?—may be examining one of his photographs with the same reverence and cluelessness.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between €35000 and €900000. Gursky’s prints are routinely available in the secondary markets, with his Rhein II among the most expensive photographs ever sold at auction, topping $4.3 million. While some Gursky prints in large editions can be found for under $10000, most start at roughly $50000 and work their way up to over $1 million, with a handful bumping up into the $2 million and $3 million range.

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