Andreas Gursky

Since the late 1980s, Andreas Gursky has been getting further and further away from his subjects. The evolution of digital manipulation techniques has enabled the Düsseldorf-based artist to occupy an increasingly remote vantage point from which he casts a privileged gaze on the exclusive sanctuaries of a globalized lifestyle industry and other sites off-limits to the public: a Formula 1 racetrack in Bahrain; man-made archipelagoes off the coast of Dubai; North Korean propaganda spectacles. In this respect, his large-format tableaux pursue an aesthetic strategy of spectacular superficiality in which photography appears to eschew its own traditionally mimetic tendencies toward realism in favor of ornamental flourishes, a development whose overall effect is to collapse the distinction between abstraction and figuration. This emphasis on surface value makes the avant-garde opposition of a politically engaged factography and a formalist “new vision” seem decidedly obsolete, leaving the medium bereft of its own history.

In his most recent show, Gursky exhibited his six-part series “Ocean,” 2009–10, which was inspired by a night flight he took from Dubai to Melbourne. At the heart of these monumental photographs (so large that they had to be printed in two halves, as an all-but-invisible seam along the midline of each picture attests) lie vast, fathomless oceans, all dark blues and blacks. Near the photographs’ edges, landmasses—snow-covered, verdant, or rocky—advance into the all-over oceanic surface. High-resolution satellite images provided the outlines and topography of these islands, poles, and continents, and Gursky filled them in using imagery he found on the Internet. As no sufficiently detailed satellite images of the sea were available, he produced the depths and shallows by entirely artificial means, though consulting shoal maps as guides, and he colored them in such a way as to achieve a photographic effect of the real—despite the traces of digital montage in these images that aim to overwhelm the viewer with calculated gestures of sublime grandeur. These colossal representational exertions have resulted in classical tableaux that leave the discursive spaces of photography far behind in search of a greater proximity to the painterly tradition of modernist aesthetics.

Indeed, at first glance the images in “Ocean” are more reminiscent of the compositional schemas of Morris Louis or the tonal values of Ross Bleckner’s paintings than of the typologically systematized, conceptually rigorous works of Gursky’s former teachers Bernd and Hilla Becher, or even the archival photographic projects of Ed Ruscha, Douglas Huebler, or Hans-Peter Feldmann, with their emphasis on contingency and indifference. Even on closer examination, these immersive images simulate classical, painterly topoi and virtuoso techniques not only in terms of format, but also in their invocation of sfumato, chiaroscuro, impasto, carefully placed highlights, and calculated blurriness. Rather than the ecological subtext that, according to the press release, could be understood as central to these images, Gursky’s new work should be seen above all as expressing an anachronistic attempt to restore the potency of modernist painting’s rhetorical language in the field of contemporary art. As art historian Michael Fried insists, photography matters as art today more than ever because it is using new means to pursue an aesthetic form handed down from the history of painting, for which autonomy, intention, and absorption are the decisive, if not the only valid criteria. It is one of the paradoxes of contemporary photography that for Gursky and his advocates, painting is—pace David Joselit’s much-discussed essay on recent forms of critical-reflective practice in this medium—anything but “beside itself.”

André Rottmann

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.