By Margaret Sundell, Artforum, March 2000
The discourse around Andreas Gursky tends to get trapped in an outdated modernist impulse to define a medium by its physical properties. Because his monumental color photographs are digitally manipulated, they must be not photographs but “photographic paintings.” But it might be more useful to consider Gursky’s work in terms of effect rather than category.
Gursky’s latest offering featured his signature panoramic vistas of the weirdly spectacular yet antiseptic public spaces of late capitalism: discount superstores, cavernous hotel lobbies, stock-market trading floors. Also on display were three “micro-panoramas,” massively enlarged close-ups of a page from a book (Robert Musil’s Man Without Qualities) and of paintings (a Constable, a van Gogh). In the early ’90s, Gursky began applying the formal tropes of modernist painting to his photographic images, and the works here further that trend. The swarming blue-and-red-smocked figures in Chicago, Board of Trade II, 1999, look uncannily like Pollockesque drips, and the rows of mass-produced goods in 99 Cent, 1999, conform precisely to the dictates of a modernist grid. The micro-panoramas, which update Jasper Johns’s application of modernist flatness to the representation of objects that, by definition, are already flat, operate along similar lines.
Also in the early ’90s, Gursky started to doctor his pictures digitally, largely to eliminate anecdotal detail and accentuate the underlying formal structure. However, unlike most artists working with computers, he still makes color prints from celluloid negatives. As a result, his images retain crystalline definition, minuscule grain, and a high-gloss sheen. They still read, in other words, as photographs-not as computer-generated images-despite the digital manipulation. They read as photographs also because Gursimy’s images do more than mimic abstract painting: They rigorously adhere to the conventions of documentary photography (flawless technique, a dispassionate treatment of subject matter) made famous by artists like Bernd and Hilla Becher, Gursky’s mentors.
But in his pictures something is always slightly off. The colors, though lushly saturated, are too metallic. The spaces, while perspectival, appear oddly flat. This effect (most obvious in works like 99 Cent and Rhein II, 1999) is achieved by photographing a scene of deep space, scanning the image into a computer and dividing it into horizontal bands, adjusting objects near the vanishing point so that their resolution matches that of objects in the foreground, and then pasting the whole thing back into its original configuration. The results are twofold: First, atmospheric perspective is eliminated; second, things that originally lay one behind the other now lie next to each other on the same spatial plane. At the same time, singlepoint perspective remains intact, creating a disturbing sense of spatial dislocation and an even more disturbing gap between what we think we’re looking at and what we’re actually seeing. The problem with Gursky’s pictures is that there’s always a point at which it becomes impossible to tell the difference.
Gursky primes viewers to read his work in terms of the conventions that signify “photographic objectivity.” But then he thwarts expectations–without giving us the means to understand where they have gone awry. He forces us to confront the presence of a technology that, although apparent, remains incomprehensible. This-and not the debate it incites about medium specificity-is the most meaningful aspect of Gursky’s digital manipulations. Gursky leaves his viewers with two options: either persist in trying to figure out how the images are made and get bogged down in an obfuscating technology; or abandon the effort entirely and submit to a pleasurable, but directionless, cognitive drift across the surface of his “allover” compositions. It hardly seems accidental that this is increasingly the alternative technology offers us every day. Less obvious is whether Gursky’s images serve as a critical allegory of latecapitalist anomie or whether they are simply another instance of it.