New York

Andreas Gursky

Matthew Marks Gallery

Looking at the best of Andreas Gursky’s large-format photographs is like turning back just after the moment of death to gaze at the earth as you float away from it: the landscape you inhabited is as drab as ever, but now it’s possessed by a compositional magic, a serenity and geometry, a tension between animate and inanimate that had gone unnoticed.

In his recent show, a work entitled Singapore, 1997, best exemplifies this experience. A gray, manmade harbor was shot from on high, as from an ascending hot-air balloon, so that the earth’s curve is perceptible. With nothing to distinguish the scene qua scene, the image might easily illustrate a National Geographic story on Pacific Rim economies. But then one notices that the small boats at anchor near the polygonal banks of the new harbor, their details flattened out by the remoteness of the perspective, all face the same direction—out to sea. Offshore, a group of tankers, mere hyphens in the misty distance, are also at anchor. The two groups of craft and the geometrical shore take on a strange aura of collectivity. While not exactly animate, this hazy unity is vivid and charged with a low-grade expectancy—though expectant of what is not the least bit clear.

What is clear is that these manmade things are somehow establishing a realm unto themselves, a kind of zeitgeist of objects. Gursky’s photos catch things in the act of coming into their own. The people who might inhabit these scenes have become inessential to the autonomous, gloomy grandeur they helped create. Two photos of hivelike hotel courtyards, Atlanta, 1996, and Times Square, 1997, illustrate quite gorgeously the new relations of animate and inanimate that Gursky’s formal rigor brings into focus. The seemingly endless Babylonian terraces of the atriums are punctuated by human figures, and their distribution in the composition is typical of the photographer’s work in the sense that their positions are at once random and meaningful, as if suspended in an enigmatic force field. Each maid, patron, and room-service clerk has an air of Hopperesque isolation, but their relationship to the multi-tiered structure is above all that of posthumanist symbiosis: they are as remora to some sort of cyborg Gaia.

While the relation between photography and painting—especially Northern Romantic painting—has always been a preoccupation of Gursky’s, this vexed kinship was made explicit in two pairings in the exhibit. Untitled VI, 1997, a deadpan photo of a Pollock on the wall of a museum, was hung beside a large-scale close-up of gravel-strewn (read “allover”) earth; and a photo of three museum-hung Turner riverscapes was juxtaposed with Rhein, 1996, a photo of the river. The last, composed of hard-edged bands—cloudy sky, dark far shore, treacherous, silvery river, near shore, and service road—has the severe classicism one has come to associate with Gursky, as well as the insinuation of the industrial into the pastoral. But the photos of the paintings were dull in the manner of Louise Lawler, and their juxtapositions with the landscapes were the least compelling feature of the show. Photography can indeed frame and date painting, one agreed wearily.

The show was nonetheless remarkable. While articulating something new about our place in the cyber-landscape, Gursky’s ambitious work restores to imagemaking a nobility and authority that seem almost atavistic now.

Thad Ziolkowski