New York

Andreas Gursky

Like Jaschi Klein, Andreas Gursky shows us the figure in space, but the effect is radically different. First, the balance between figure and space is sharply altered, the figure being a relatively minute speck within a vast, almost indeterminate space. Second, the space is not turned into a stage, that is, a support for the figures, a place to show them off to expressive advantage; rather, it exists as an absolute. It is transparent, even lucid in quality; it is not enlisted in the service of mood. Third, it is still noticeably an everyday space, rather than Klein’s enigmatic one, which seems to live in a magician’s hat. Fourth, it is at the same time clearly constructed, invented, abstract. It has none of the voluptuousness of Klein’s all-too-material space.

Gursky’s Ruhrtal (Ruhr valley, 1989) represents space by “focusing” it within an internal frame composed of a horizontal bridge, land, and two vertical pylons. In Zoobrücke (Zoo bridge, 1988), Gursky implies frame through diagonal horizontals, with one vertical pylon crossing a distant horizontal shore. Even his landscapes have this sober, composed look, the clarity of the divisions in them suggesting a self-framing space. The works are composed with elegant, grand simplicity.

At the same time, Gursky’s photographs betray a subliminal, discreet human presence. The smallness of the figure in Schnorchler (Scuba diver, 1989), as well as of the figures in the other works mentioned, suggests an intimation of mortality, human nothingness, irrelevance. But the work lacks any sense of deliberate social commentary. The figures in Beaugrenelle, 1988, are not the victims of the urban site they comfortably inhabit. The mood is subtle, unplaceable, dry. Nor is the space romantically abstract, for all its openness and apparent infinity; rather, it has a certain luminous composure and calm. The dignity of the spatial construction—the sense of unforced clarity and distinctness in the whole work—suggests a transcendence of pathos, or else its sublimation. Gursky turns the recording of a specific site into a formal demonstration; the formal becomes emblematic of a certain detachment from the site. Indeed, these photographs suggest how it is possible to distance oneself from a familiar world in the very act of being close to it. Such simultaneity is, of course, innate to the photograph, which can give one a sense of startling immediacy while indicating just how mediated and contrived an image is. Gursky brilliantly realizes this simultaneity of finding and inventing. His work possesses a quality of expressive uncertainty, which often brings with it a sense of being emotionally duped in the very process of cognition. Gursky’s photographs, in and through their clarity and distinctness, their illusions of immediacy, create a striking sense of hidden, deeply repressed, almost denied affect.

Donald Kuspit