New York

Andreas Gursky

Did photography “ruin” painting? This question, which achieved its 19th-century crystallization in Baudelaire’s famous complaint in “The Salon of 1859,” has nagged at critical consciousness ever since the advent of the medium. Various theorists from Walter Benjamin to Rosalind Krauss have attempted to unravel the Gordian knot that links painting and photography; none has yet discovered Alexander’s sword.

In the 19th century, Romantic pictorialists like the Victorian grandes dames Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Hawarden reveled in the camera’s power to transform real-life objects and people into gauzy painterly fantasia, as if through the agency of the most recent technology the School of Giorgione could be magically resuscitated, its thick atmosphere of reverie transferred seamlessly to the photographic print. And, in this century, Alfred Stieglitz would perfect a no-less-dreamy pictorialism, withdrawing photography from its “common” industrial and touristic uses and placing it firmly within the sanctum of Art. In recent years, artists as diverse as Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, Clegg & Guttman, and Thomas Struth have continued to cloud the transparency of the photographic negative with more opaque historical fragments of the painter’s art.

Among the work of this recent generation, Andreas Gursky’s photographs offer some of the most subtle probings of the rifts between photography and more traditional representational modes. Though his photographs are unfailingly beautiful, his work derives its peculiar savor from its wry split with previous, usually nonphotographic models. Gursky’s landscapes often seem to recapitulate the tradition of landscape painting; the scenes he favors recall painters from Bruegel to Caspar David Friedrich. Or rather, the ironic charge and strange beauty of Gursky’s landscapes can be traced in part to their “high art” (painting as opposed to photography) resonances. Work and leisure under late capitalism are his persistent themes, and yet the “human element” in his landscapes is almost always strangely reduced. His tiny figures no more dominate his scenes than does the plummeting winged boy in Bruegel’s Fall of Icarus, 1555–56. This diminution of the figure could invite a certain kind of sociological reading of Gursky’s pictures, and while such an interpretation is not necessarily misguided or inapposite, it does tend to neglect the formal brilliance of the images in favor of rather bland illustrationism.

In this show, Gursky continues to mess with the conventions of landscape, sometimes in strikingly funny ways. In Autobahn Mettman, 1993, we view a bucolic scene of cows grazing through a frosted and clear glass scrim of the autobahn guard rail. The scene is literally sliced into strips. Furthermore, Gursky’s use of a wide-angle lens here has led to some bizarre perspectival distortions: the cow in the lower left-hand corner seems to be falling out of the picture plane, dropping off the face of the earth.

Other photographs demonstrate Gursky’s recourse to pictorial models derived from more recent art history. In Brasília, 1994, Gursky pictures the latticed grid covering the spookily luminous lighting fixtures of an office ceiling. The grid recedes in a perfect illustration/parody of Albertian perspective. The image has a dystopian, even sci-fi edge. We recall that the city of Brasflia is the textbook example of utopian Modernist city planning gone haywire. There’s something very Andromeda Strain about this image. At the same time, Gursky discovers in an industrially manufactured environment an analogue for the grid structure which has persisted in Modernism from Mondrian and de Stijl to Minimalism and Conceptualism. This ceiling might as well have been “done” by Sol LeWitt. Here, the technological medium of photography depicts an industrially fabricated environment while also alluding to the protocols of abstract painting and sculpture. As Krauss has argued in her 1979 essay “Grids,” the canvas itself encodes the structure of the grid within its very weave; hence the grid is also a readymade. Ultimately, photographs, too, are a kind of readymade. Gursky certainly seems bent on leading us down a winding path.

The two diptychs included in this show—Cairo, 1992, and Borse Hong Kong, 1994—also play on the viewer’s familiarity with Modernist and proto-Modernist art. The “allover” patterning of the Hong Kong stock exchange workers’ red, white, and black uniforms doesn’t suggest Jackson Pollock, but does bring to mind the ordered optical pulsations that neo-Impressionist painters strived for: in this case, not so much Seurat as his epigone Signac, or even the early Matisse when he labored under Signac’s tutelage. In Cairo, Gursky’s aerial perspective of a decomposed traffic circle/traffic jam reminds me, just barely but yes, really, of the glowing discs of Robert Delauney’s abstractions—here blanched and denatured coloristically—or even Marcel Duchamp’s Precision Optics, 1920, and rotoreliefs. I’m not saying that Gursky was consciously thinking about any of these precedents, but intentionality never has the last word. The genius of Gursky’s photographs is the way he ever so delicately picks out these strands of reference, his eyes like a rich old dowager’s bony hand reaching out for her favorite jewels.

David Rimanelli