Andreas Gursky

I like Andreas Gursky, so should you!

"One might say that Andreas Gursky learned photography three times. Born in 1955, he grew up in Düsseldorf, the only child of a successful commercial photographer, learning the tricks of that trade before he had finished high school. In the late 1970s, he spent two years in nearby Essen at the Folkwangschule (Folkwang School), which Otto Steinert had established as West Germany’s leading training ground for professional photographers, especially photojournalists. At Essen, Gursky encountered photography's documentary tradition, a sophisticated art of unembellished observation, whose earnest outlook was remote from the artificial enticements of commercial work. Finally, in the early 1980s, he studied at the Staatliche Kunstakademie (State Art Academy) in Düsseldorf, which thanks to artists such as Joseph Beuys, Sigmar Polke, and Gerhard Richter had become the hotbed of Germany's vibrant postwar avant-garde. There Gursky learned the ropes of the art world and mastered the rigorous method of Bernd and Hilla Becher, whose photographs had achieved prominence within the Conceptual and Minimal art movements.

When Gursky, together with other Becher students, began to win recognition in the late 1980s, his photography was interpreted as an extension of his teachers' aesthetic. But the full range of Gursky's photographic educations has figured in his mature work, enabling him to outgrow all three of them. His photographs—big, bold, rich in color and detail—constitute one of the most original achievements of the past decade and, for all the panache of his signature style, one of the most complex. The exhibition Andreas Gursky surveys that achievement from 1984 to the present. It focuses on work since 1990, when Gursky turned his attention to subjects that struck him as representative of a contemporary zeitgeist—and found equally contemporary ways of picturing them. In pursuit of this project, Gursky expanded his scope of operations from Düsseldorf and its environs to an international itinerary that has taken him to Hong Kong, Cairo, New York, Brasília, Tokyo, Stockholm, Chicago, Athens, Singapore, Paris, and Los Angeles, among other places. His early themes of Sunday leisure and local tourism gave way to enormous industrial plants, apartment buildings, hotels, office buildings, and warehouses. Family outings and hiking trips were replaced by the Olympics, a cross-country marathon involving hundreds of skiers, the German parliament, the trading floors of international stock exchanges, alluring displays of brand-name goods, and midnight techno music raves attended by casts of thousands. Gursky’s world of the 1990s is big, high-tech, fast-paced, expensive, and global. Within it, the anonymous individual is but one among many.

Andreas Gursky, Chicago Board of Trade II

Andreas Gursky, Paris, Montparnasse

Few of us have traveled as widely as Gursky and fewer still have visited such places as the Tokyo stock exchange, the Siemens plant at Karlsruhe, the General Assembly building in Brasília, or the Sha Tin racetrack near Hong Kong. But our omnivorous image industry—the slick illustrations of corporate advertising, the overabundant photography of magazines and newspapers, the ceaselessly roving eye of television—has processed, packaged, and delivered all of this and more. Gursky’s originality lies in the vividness and wit with which he has distilled compelling images from the plenitude of this commercialized image world.

Andreas Gursky, Paris, 99 Cent. 1999

Andreas Gursky, May Day IV

The distinctiveness of this achievement arises from the hybrid character of Gursky’s art, which draws upon a great diversity of precedents, currents, and techniques. He has embraced the gaudy blandishments of advertising without abandoning the keen observations of documentary photography. He has emulated the grandeur of German Romantic painting and the principled reserve of Minimalist abstraction in part by exploring the hyperbolic fictions of digital manipulation. Gursky’s polished, signature style is the fruit of restless experiment; the more he has welcomed divergent and often mutually antagonistic impulses into his art, the more it has become his own.

Gursky’s work sets forth a commanding image of contemporary reality, which may seduce or repel us—or both at once. In any case, his photographs do not so much mirror as embody this gorgeous, cold-hearted spectacle. It is thanks to the artfulness of Gursky’s fictions that we recognize his world as our own."

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