Works in the Collection
People are hardly ever portrayed in Andreas Gursky’s work from the beginning of his career to the present day. Instead, they can sometimes be spotted, in isolation, as singular symbols, amid a stunning natural landscape. With other subject matter, people appear just as infrequently, let alone with their own individual features. Rather, they are merely seen in small, medium or large groups: as a pair of passers-by in a suburb, under a highway bridge in the middle of nowhere, distinct but tiny behind countless windows of a vast apartment block, in the thronging audience at concerts, as the minuscule part of a crowd in trading places, or loosely scattered in leisure settings. But even though people barely feature in Gursky’s pictures, they are always implied. Therefore, anchoring the world as a ‘made’ habitat between the poles of nature and civilization is an elementary dimension of Gursky’s creative output. Aspects of both the factually documentary and structurally typological work of his tutors Michael Schmidt and Bernd Becher are incorporated here: in West Berlin in the early 1980s, when Andreas Gursky studied under him at the Folkwang school, Michael Schmidt was one of the few photographers who portrayed the urban nature of the city – with its vacant lots, backyards, firewalls, and brick walls, in black and white, between somber and sculptural, always in an objective way. By contrast, with Bernd Becher at the academy in Düsseldorf, the subject of architecture conveyed a typologically-oriented image concept that predominantly depicts industrial buildings and production facilities (shaft towers, blast furnaces, silos), also in black and white, in a structurally analytical way and often in serially clustered groups.
Unlike his tutors, already at an early stage, Andreas Gursky used color photography in order to deploy it strategically in his pictorial works, in keeping with the apparent truthfulness of photography. By using a large-format camera with sheet film that allows a very deep focus with highly precise detail and no distortion of perspectives for the resulting picture, Gursky always restricts or reinforces the emotional impact that a color photo always conveys, an element that it shares with painting. Over the centuries, much has been written in art theory about the emotional effects that pictures can and are meant to stir in those who view them, and this also frames Andreas Gursky’s work as a reservoir of possibilities. In particular, the influential essays published from the 18th century onwards by writers, theorists, and artists, including the empirical and sensualist aesthetics of Edmund Burke, enhance possible strategies for composing pictures and their intended effect on those who view them with terms regarding “sublime”, “beautiful” or “picturesque” image effects.
In the axially oriented grid of the image composition of "Ratingen, Schwimmbad" (1987), several visitors are scattered in and around a pool under a light-gray sky. The overhead shot makes clear how the polygonal pool is cut into the typical setting of an English landscape garden in order to create an oasis of relaxation, in line with notions of an experiential aesthetic. As a result of the attained visibility, the bathers additionally enliven the entire setting as pictorial, dabbed spots of paint, and convey the pleasantly picturesque impression of a hitherto peaceful afternoon. However, the extremely sharp detail of the photo induces a materially dissecting analysis of the situation, something that the naked eye could not attain. The picture, which simultaneously provides both a micro and macro perspective, thus establishes a curious reference to the world as an entity that it is no longer real to life, but purely technological.
Technologically motivated ‘unease’ is also at the fore in Andreas Gursky’s nature shots, such as his work "Aletschgletscher” from 1993. The largest glacier in the Alps looks more than imposing, with dramatic weather and lighting effects, with bright sections in the center of the photo that dissipate towards the sky and are framed by the darker slopes at the sides. Here, Gursky reverts to those features that carry a sensual and majestic impact, as the viewer is confronted by the large, imposing, raw, and powerful glacier. Yet here too, the highly sharp detail undermines the pure impression of the aesthetically sublime.
From 1993 onwards, with the possibilities of digital image processing, Andreas Gursky increasingly presents the photographically composed color photo as an aesthetically condensed fiction. One of his early and most prominent works entitled "Montparnasse" depicts the largest residential building in Paris in its entirety, in all its frontal monumentality, but is a montage of two individual photos. Since then, from the viewer's perspective, rather than being solely the result of a technically driven analysis of reality, the conception of the world in Gursky’s pictures is elevated to an encounter with “mega-signs”. As a result of digital image processing, the work “Chicago Board of Trade I” also constitutes a compressed snapshot of human civilization, as a manifestation of its productivity, its frenzy, through its architectural settings and the associated models of economics and society. With the absolute desire for organization, structure, and efficiency, the lust for action and the ensuing yearning for places of retreat and relaxation, the pursuit of civilization changes the shape of the world. In Andreas Gursky’s work, the civilizing power of humankind is reflected in its global context, too.
Andreas Gursky (*1955): Born in Leipzig; in the same year, his parents flee from the GDR, first to Essen, then Düsseldorf. His father, Willy Gursky, continues his work as a successful commercial photographer there, with his own studio. 1977–1980 Studies at Folkwang Universität der Künste, Essen, under Michael Schmidt and others. 1980–1987 Studies at Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, master student of Bernd Becher. 1989 Wins the "Wettbewerb der Landesgirokasse zur Förderung der künstlerischen Photographie in Deutschland” prize; first institutional solo exhibition at the Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld. 1992 Solo exhibition with the Siemens-Kultur-Programm, Munich, solo exhibition at the Kunsthalle Zürich. 1994 First retrospective of work from 1984 to 1993, De Appel Foundation, Amsterdam, Le Case D’Arte, Milan, Deichtorhallen, Hamburg. 1992 With his work “Charles de Gaulle”, Gursky uses the possibilities of digital image processing in his oeuvre for the first time. 1995 “Montparnasse” exhibition, Portikus, Frankfurt am Main. Solo exhibition at the Tate Gallery, Liverpool. 1998 Touring retrospective "Fotografien 1994 – 1998", Serpentine Gallery, London, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg, Kunstmuseum Winterthur, Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon, Castello di Rivoli, Turin. Touring retrospective “Currents 27”, Milwaukee Art Museum, The Henry Art Gallery, Washington, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Columbus Museum of Art. 2001 Solo exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, subsequent venues are Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, MCA Chicago, SFMOMA, San Francisco. 2007–2008 "Retrospektive 1994 – 2007" tour, Haus der Kunst, Munich, Museum of Modern Art, Istanbul, Sharjah Contemporary Arab Museum, Ekatarina Foundation, Moscow, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. 2010–2018 Professor at the Düsseldorf art academy. 2012–2018 International solo exhibitions, including at Louisiana Museum, Humblebaek, The National Museum of Art, Tokyo, Museum Frieder Burda, Baden-Baden, Hayward Gallery, London. 2019 Exhibition at Villa Massimo, Rome, alongside the work of his former tutor Michael Schmidt. 2021 First solo exhibition at the Museum der bildenden Künste, in his native town Leipzig.