The exhibition of the work of the German photographer Andreas Gursky, which opened recently at the Museum of Modern Art, is the most-talked-about show in New York at the moment, for good reasons: His images of public spaces – hotel lobbies, airports, factories, parliaments, sports arenas, highways, and ski resorts – seem to contain the elusive secret, the defining genetic code, of contemporary culture. He does not simply describe the appearance of our familiar places, although his pictures often look like traditional photographs. He is willing to digitally manipulate a work, changing or adding what he wants, in order to arrive at the revelatory image. In other words, his art is too good to be literally true. It represents a Platonic effort to distill the essential truth of our situation, free from the shadowy, misleading distortions of reality. “It is his fiction,” says the organizer of the show, Peter Galassi, “but our world.”
Although Gursky’s work is steeped in postmodern ironies and influenced by many recent artists, the scale of his sensibility immediately evokes the German Romantic tradition – and not just because many of the 46 pictures in the exhibit are very large. Gursky has a lofty, “God’s eye” perspective. His images are architectonic, abstract, and strangely implacable. People do not have much power in this scheme; they are diminutive, playing their part in the grander scheme of things. The great powers in Gursky’s art are not, of course, the divinities revered by the romantics of the nineteenth century. There is no spiritual intoxication before the sublime, no Wagnerian search for the underlying myths, no attack upon the bourgeoisie or celebration of the revolutionary forces of history. Instead, a mysterious techno-god seems to pull the strings. He is a strangely deadpan and affectless divinity, but not uncheerful. He makes use of slick advertising, juiced-up commercial colors, and spanking-clean light. He understands the governing beauty of the modular and the hypnotizing grid of window, bin, and road. He allows no disorder or mess. The pictures seem as clean as a window after Windex, as bright as clothes after Cheer.
As if to emphasize his connection to the Romantic tradition, Gursky has made a number of seemingly sublime pictures of the natural world, but the grandeur of his mountains does not overpower the senses or lead to a contemplation of your smallness in relation to eternity, as it might in the work of, for example, Caspar David Friedrich. Instead, you might wonder, Is God now making postcards? (There seems to be nothing wild left in Europe anyway, except, perhaps, the soccer fans.) Or the once sublime mountain becomes a ski resort – with its own contemporary beauty – and diminishes those who visit in new, less spirit-minded ways, turning them into abstract pieces of environmental information. A crowd may form itself into a line of spectators at a ski resort, for example, becoming just an artful squiggle in the larger composition. In other works by Gursky, nature appears chopped and diced by roads, bridges, trains – and the strong, formal intent of the artist himself. The Rhine, the source of so much romantic legend, becomes a minimalist work of horizontal planes. In Angler, Mülheim a.d. Ruhr, individuals make solitary spots for themselves along a river bank. In the far distance, glimpsed against the horizon, there is an ordinary bridge.
The same cool eye monumentalizes – in the postmodern manner – our urban and commercial places. If the Rhine can become a work of geometric minimalism, so can a presentation of running shoes laid out in lusciously long, horizontal planes. In 99 Cent, the store bins filled with candy and cookies are ablaze with a riotous display of buy-me colors. Yet Gursky emphasizes a powerful note of underlying order in the composition and offers respect, even reverence, to our pop cornucopia. “Redemption” is too strong a word to apply to art that cultivates a kind of deadpan impersonality, yet the low- and middlebrow currents in contemporary architecture (such as the touristy “Oh, wow!” hotel atriums built in cities across the world) receive from Gursky the kind of respectful attention that Robert Venturi gave to Las Vegas. Gursky does not judge the works of the mysterious techno-god. He reveals his designs.
Gursky is also updating our sense of the modern crowd. Gursky’s crowd is not the “masses” or the “mob.” It is not poor or threatening or particularly purposeful. It is not even “faceless,” for that word suggests existential angst. His crowd is more abstract than faceless. Gursky has made photographs of teeming parliaments and stock exchanges. He has also photographed crowds at concerts and sporting events. The reasons for the gatherings seem irrelevant; it is simply the play of energy that fascinates. Gursky has taken a large photograph of a Jackson Pollock drip painting that makes a kind of rhyme with the crowd scenes. Like the painting, the “all over” crowds are a fantastic swirl of dibs and dabs. The crowds in a Gursky photograph have remarkably little weight. Compare them with Weegee’s depiction of the mass of sunbathers at Coney Island: The Weegee is all sweat and salt and intractable flesh. In the Gursky, the people are as light as pixels – rather pretty pixels.
This confident art creates a fresh, uncertain anxiety in the viewer. Since he is not a sentimental artist, Gursky provides no corny answers, reassuring or otherwise, to the obvious question “What does it mean to treat people as pixels?” At times, his art may seem to represent a despairing vision. And yet the people themselves do not appear unhappy. They have, after all, created an extraordinary environment around themselves that has a genuine appeal – it is a kind of human honeycomb. Isn’t it better to be a pixel, in any case, than a robot or an automaton or a drudge? The anxiety aroused by Gursky’s art is akin to that found in Huxley’s Brave New World, where totalitarian power seeks to control the population by making people blandly happy, in part by feeding them the drug soma. In contrast to Huxley, however, Gursky does not send out signals that he sides with traditional “humanistic” values. Like Warhol, he prefers to play a more ambiguous double game, at once the celebrant and the quizzical observer of a strange universe.
Photographs; at the Museum of Modern Art, through 5/15.