Josef Koudelka, Industry @Pace

JTF (just the facts): A total of 6 large scale black-and white photographs, framed in thick black wood and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a single room gallery space on the 7th floor. (Installation and detail shots below.)

The following works are included in the show:

  • 6 inkjet prints mounted to aluminum, 1997, 1999, 2000, 2004, 2009, 2010, each sized roughly 33×100 inches, in editions of 7+4AP
  • 9 book maquettes, n.d. (from Industries, Beirut, Teatro del Tempo, Transmanche, Stone, Sollac, Ruins, Black Triangle, and Wall)

Many of the artist’s photobooks are on view on a pair of benches, with Industries published in 2017 by Éditions Xavier Barral (cover shot below). Wall, from 2013, was previously reviewed here.

Comments/Context: It’s been nearly a decade since Josef Koudelka’s last solo gallery show in New York, and during that time, a steady stream of photobooks and exhibition catalogs have provided an intermittent window into both new projects he has been working on as well as his ongoing efforts to definitively reconsider earlier bodies of work. Now in his mid 80s, there is an understated sense of summing up taking place around Koudelka, with a new biography recently published by Aperture providing a comprehensive framework for understanding the Czech photographer’s long career.

This show of Koudelka’s work is a bit of a good news bad news story. It’s a small show of just six large scale black-and-white panoramas, which have been gloriously installed in the light-filled big-windowed seventh floor gallery at Pace – the photographs look just fabulous in this setting, their muscular physicality and textural detail filling the proportions of the room elegantly. The show also includes a smart selection of book maquettes which have been tucked into and around a corner, and which offer a much broader sample of Koudelka’s various panoramic projects. The less positive reality of this show is that there is no new work on display. The images on view date between 1997 and 2010, so any or all of the images could logically have been included in his 2015 show (reviewed here). While this show is lovely to look at, there isn’t much new to learn about Koudelka or his recent work here, which feels like a decently egregious missed opportunity.

Starting with a commission for the French government in the mid 1980s, Koudelka began working more exclusively with the panorama format, and in the decades since, he has explored a wide range of geographies and subject matter locations around the globe using this sweeping perspective, including industrial sites, ruins, archeological digs, ancient settings, quarries, the walls dividing Israel and Palestine, various locations in Italy, a number of environmentally devastated landscapes, and other spots particularly suited to the elongated aspect ratio. The handful of works on view in this show jump from one location to the next, creating a sampler of subjects, many of which seem to have been selected for their timeliness or contemporary relevance, all drawn under the title “Industry”.

Three of the large scale photographs on view are indeed images of industry, capturing the oil fields of Azerbaijan, the smoky rail yards of a hulking quarry in the United States, and the flooded washes and sculpted hills of another quarry in Germany. In each case, the wide format gives Koudelka room to play with the available compositional possibilities, both in terms of the intense contrasts of light and dark and the filling of the frame from edge to edge with visual information. In Azerbaijan, the reflection of a watery pool of residue doubles the oil rigs in the distance and curved fragments of discarded pipe in the foreground, creating calligraphic dark lines that decorate the bright reflected sky. In the United States, the view is much murkier and more clouded by belching smoke, with Koudelka balancing a trestle bridge at the far left with a sharp upward curve of steel on the right. And in Germany, dark hills of slag rock step along rhythmically, with watery runoff drifting down to fill cascading layers of geometrically controlled space. Up close all three pictures are filled with envelopingly grainy textures, but a few steps back, the photographs pack a powerful environmental punch, with the industrial ugliness given some visual grace without minimizing its grim tragedy.

It’s a bit harder to connect the other three images on view to a strictly industrial theme, although they do feature man-altered environments of one kind or another. Given the current conflict in Israel, Koudelka’s image of walls near Jerusalem takes on a different kind of resonance, the roadway falling away down the lines of perspective in the distance, hemmed in by the dark unforgiving concrete. An image in Italy featuring railings and curved concrete architectural details is more stylized and forgiving in its mood, while an image of a rock ball in Germany, perhaps found at some ancient site, pushes that idea of elemental geometry to its visual endpoint, with the circular orb casting a perfect oval shadow on the rough ground.

Part of the frustration that occurs in a small show of big pictures is that there just aren’t enough photographs on view to get a feel for the larger themes and aesthetics in the work. This definitely happens here, where a show of two or three dozen of Koudelka’s large panoramas might have provided a much fuller and richer experience. As a stopgap solution to this problem, nine photobook maquettes have been installed in a small upper alcove near the window, allowing us to see many more examples of Koudelka’s images, as organized into accordion folded mini-books. A quick scan of these maquettes uncovers plenty of standout images, with Koudelka exploring back and forth juxtapositions, differences of texture and scale, calligraphic curves and lines (as seen in roads, railings, signs, light poles, and other found architecture), and tactile visions of everything from rock faces to barbed wire. While these maquettes might successfully encourage us to seek out some of Koudelka’s photobooks, they also indirectly show us what this exhibit is missing.

Panoramic photography has its own particular time line and historical arc, reaching all the way back to the 19th century, with more contemporary stops with Koudelka’s countryman Josef Sudek, and even more recently, with Michael Ashkin’s images of the Meadowlands in New Jersey (reviewed here), among many others. Koudelka’s panoramic efforts across the past several decades have become increasingly sophisticated, tuning the spatial dynamics, the tonal contrasts, and the textural possibilities with more and more refinement and grace. This show offers an appetizer-sized taste of that wider range of visual experimentation, with just a few hints used to sketch in the outlines of a much more complex and durably engaging aesthetic investigation.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $55000 and $75000, based on the place in the edition. Koudelka’s prints have become more generally available in the secondary markets over the past decade, with recent prices ranging from roughly $1000 to $57000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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