Saturday, September 10, 2016

Andreas Gursky: nicht abstrakt @ Kunstsammlung NRW K20

Andreas Gursky, Rückblick, 2015
It’s difficult to find something new to say about a photographer like Gursky whose work has been so written about. And I am not convinced that I have much to say that I haven’t already said about his work. But neither can I resist the opportunity to mark the occasion of my first experience of Gursky’s work in his adopted town of Düsseldorf. Because I have seen Gursky’s work so often, I was interested in the crowd at Grabbeplatz and their responses to the work.

Andreas Gursky, Amazon, 2016
Andreas Gursky – nicht abstrakt is, as always, a treat. It’s a treat because in spite of its relatively small number of photographs, there are some old favorites, some brand new works, and others that have been re-printed in a different format or different dimensions. So my first reassurance was to note that this is a body of work that is constantly changing. I was also delighted to see how challenged the viewers around me were. They looked a distance, stood up close, asked each other what exactly they were looking at, tried to find human figures and in general, make sense of the image. How did he do that? And before an image of the Amazon (2016), they realized their own consumerist desires were being examined in the photograph. I was heartened by their engagement and their constant questions.

Viewing Amazon, 2016

I saw Rückblick (2015) for the first time and was immediately impressed by its layers of complexity. The enormous photograph shows the heads of Germany’s four living chancellors‑Gerhard Schröder, Helmut Kohl, Angela Merkel and Helmut Schmidt--along the lower edge, sitting before Barnett Newman’s 1950–51 painting Vir Heroicus Sublimis, Newman’s painting overwhelms Gursky’s image and the figures of the Chancellors, just as it was intended to overwhelm its viewers in 1950-51 when it was first exhibited at MoMA. The possible interpretations of Gursky’s photograph are endless: Newman’s reference to “Man, heroic, sublime” in the title of his painting, or his use of red taken out of context as a strategy to strip away the social constructions and connotations of the Latin meaning of the title (and the power of the four figures), might be the point. Alternatively, Newman’s paintings have a reputation and a legacy in Germany since Who’s Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue IV (1969-70) was attacked soon after it was bought by the German government in 1982. The culprit claimed it was a rip on the German flag and therefore, thanks to its title, deliberately provocative.

Andreas Gursky, Untitled VI, 1997

And then, we can turn to Gursky’s photograph in which these significances become further complicated by the history of the Rückenfigur in German art, photography, and film. The Rückenfigur supposedly overlooks a vast landscape and as viewers we are invited to fall into this re-created space with the viewer in the image. Of course, this becomes ironic when the Rückenfiguren in Gursky’s photograph sit before a Barnett Newman painting. Because it is clearly a painting within a photograph, there is nowhere to fall into, to overlook, to create. In a gesture which could likewise be interpreted in a number of different ways, the right “panel” of the painting, and perhaps the photograph, is joined to the rest of the image with black tape. The tape both repeats the zip for which Newman is famous and which maintains the viewer’s eye on the surface of the painting (and here the photograph). In addition, it isolates Helmut Kohl from the other figures which may be read as a political statement. It reminds us that we are seeing a photograph of a photograph of a painting, that the image exists nowhere but in the image before us, under glass in the Museum. And because the photograph hangs next to Untitled VI (1997), a reproduction of Jackson Pollock’s One: Number 31, (1950), we immediately ask questions about authenticity, reproduction, the absence of originals, the value of the photograph as art work, the role of the museum and the artmarket in all of these as they are played out in exhibitions of photography like the one we are seeing.

Andreas Gursky, Les Mées, 2016

I focus on this one photograph in the Andreas Gursky – nicht abstrakt exhibition to illustrate a point. Recently, Gursky has been criticized for trivializing the pursuit of photography, making his images bigger and slicker and with this, the claim is that they have become more superficial and less relevant to the image world in which we now move. However, even if they were bourgeois intellectuals, students and tourists, the visitors who I shared the gallery spaces with were so intrigued by the playfulness, the complexity, ambiguity and impossibility of the images that Gursky created. Which is to say, Gursky may not be saying anything about photography (though I would argue contrary to the critics that he is) but his preoccupations with the role of the image in all its manifestations are as culturally relevant as anyone else working in the medium today.

Images courtesy Sprüth Magers/the Artist

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