The German über-photographer Andreas Gursky was the perfect pre-9/11 artist. He excelled at portraying the border-to-border, edgeless hum and busy obliviousness of modern life, what Francis Fukuyama ridiculously declared “the end of history,” George W.S. Trow called “The Context of No Context,” and Rem Koolhaas dubbed “Junkspace.” Not only did Gursky seem to be critical of all this, but his handsome images of trading floors, hotel lobbies, raves, and landscapes were charged with a visual force and intellectual rigor that let you imagine that you were gleaning the grand schemes and invisible rhythms of commerce and consumption. His amazing picture of a convenience store brimming with goods, 99 Cent II, Diptych (2001), which recently became the most expensive photo in history when it was auctioned for over $3.3 million, fizzed like cherry cola but packed the formal power of a Monet.
Unfortunately, as smart and deft as this artist still is, that fizz has gone flat, the power has run low, the former buzz has become a drone. The times have changed, but Gursky is still trying to render purring pre-9/11 space, where commerce ticked along without an undercurrent of fear. But his rigor and criticality have been replaced by grandiosity and theatricality; figures feel frozen; compositions are stagy; structure devolves into carpetlike pattern. Gursky’s new pictures are filled with visual amphetamine, but now they’re laced with psychic chloroform. He’s such a serious artist that this amphetamine is singular enough to sometimes offset the deadening effects so that his pictures occasionally impart a poetics of numbness and stupefaction.
Gursky is exhibiting eleven large pictures at Matthew Marks’s West 22nd Street space and four more giants at the gallery’s 24th Street address. All these pictures were made in Thailand, Europe, Japan, North Korea, and the Middle East. The photos of racing crews are as big as boats and are like billboard versions of Caravaggio and David paintings. Other images update Kurosawa’s pageantry and Triumph of the Will, Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 film of the Nuremberg rallies. All are highly structured pictorial engines that inundate with spectacle and detail, then hollow out.
Gursky still gives you a lot to ogle. In his series on North Korea’s annual Arirang Festival, where 80,000 gymnasts perform choreographed routines, you gape at this sea of humanity in a gigantic stadium, then notice shoelaces and smiles. In three lush pictures of Thailand’s so-called James Bond Islands, you scan hundreds of square miles of ocean but also spot teeny tourists on the sand. In a photo of a German asparagus farm, you gaze on numberless rows of crops yet can almost count individual stalks. On the annoying, overclever side, there’s May Day V, an image of a tall building wherein you can see hundreds of people through the windows, including, on the sixth floor, amid a gaggle of mugging guys, a grinning figure that turns out to be Gursky himself.
Camera position is the co-star of these pictures. Usually Gursky places his lens high above, far away, on cranes, or even on helicopters. His pictures often entail multiple views of the same subject, different subjects seamlessly spliced together, and digital manipulation. Gursky loves ordered spaces and repeating grids. As he puts it, “My preference for clear structures is the result of my desire—perhaps illusory—to keep track of things and maintain my grip on the world.” He’s especially maniacal when he portrays people. “I am never interested in the individual,” he coolly says, “but in the human species and its environment.” There is no one person in a Gursky; everyone is part of a multitude.
The biggest picture at 22nd Street is F1 Boxenstopp III, which portrays two Formula 1 pit crews at work. This twenty-footer is one of a series of four photographs, and they come in an edition of six, not counting artists’ proofs. They’re reportedly priced at $750,000 per image (the gallery won’t confirm that figure). Maybe it doesn’t matter, but that’s $18 million altogether. Once you stop gasping at that number, you may notice that F1’s panoramic composition is so stilted and melodramatic that it resembles a nineteenth-century tableau vivant or a neoclassic history painting. The figures and lighting owe much to photographers like Philip-Lorca diCorcia, Gregory Crewdson, and Jeff Wall.
Gursky has digitally pieced together numerous shots from various locations, including his studio, making F1 less a photograph than an invention, and what’s tedious about it is how coyly self-referential it is. Directly above the pit crews are onlookers in a glassed-in observation deck. Many of these folks take photos; a few have their hands against the clear surface of the skybox. Thus, the frontality of the image and the idea of multiple views of one subject is stressed. Standing between the crews is a sexy blonde in lace-up leather stilettos, hot pants, and a skull on her low-slung belt buckle, which is conveniently positioned almost at the center of the picture. Is Gursky implying that men are drones and women are merely saints, sluts, sirens, or fodder for fashion photography, cheesecake, and pornography? Or maybe he’s admitting that he’s out of ideas.
Better, because it looks like an abstract painting, is Bahrain I, a beige-and-black depiction of a racetrack in the desert. More fantasylike is Kamiokande, an underground observatory in Japan where we see a tank containing 50,000 tons of water, surrounded by thousands of golden orbs—sensitive light detectors—that are evidently watching for supernovas. It’s like a cave with 100,000 golden eyes. Two tiny boatmen in the foreground make you think about crossing into the afterlife. Speaking of, there’s Cheops, in which Gursky gives us a vertical slice of the Great Pyramid. This picture escapes Gursky’s gravitas because it is a photo not of a pyramid but of labor, organization, slavery, and hubris. It contains a glimmer of Gursky’s old critical bite. Otherwise, as sensational and buzzy as some of these pictures are, Gursky is in too much control and not adding anything new or daring to his work. Many of his recent photos light up, then empty out.