News — 13 Nov 2009

The Stedelijk Museum has acquired two important works by German artist Andreas Gursky (b. Leipzig, 1955). This acquisition was made possible by the support of the Mondriaan Foundation, the Vereniging Rembrandt’s Titus Fonds, the VSB Fonds and the 

SNS Reaal Fonds. The works acquired by the museum, Mayday V (2006) and Frankfurt (2007), are in line with important themes in the museum’s photography collection, while also creating connections to other forms of the visual arts. These two monumental acquisitions complement the two early works by Gursky that the Stedelijk already owns and mean that recent work by the artist will also feature in a public Dutch collection. 

Andreas Gursky’s photographs are noted for the confusing physical and spatial experience they present. 

Their monumental format is unusual in photography and literally forces viewers to distance themselves from the work. At the same time, the wealth of details is so great that viewers almost lose themselves in the image, although this proves impossible because there is no central vanishing point. In spite of the allure of the images, their fascinating sharpness and the suggestion of space, there is no place for the viewer in this visual reality, but instead a sense of dissolving into an almost abstract, decorative grid, like a tapestry or wall hanging. Even so, the images are obviously realistic – these are concrete references to recognisable places in global culture.

Frankfurt, a work of over 2 by 5 metres, shows the arrivals and departures hall of an airport. More than half of the photograph is occupied by a board with lists of destinations, complete with flight numbers, times, terminals, gates and check-in desks. Beneath this, travellers stand waiting, although it’s not clear what they are waiting for. The realism of this picture, in the sense of a direct photographic recording of reality, turns out to be fake. Closer observation of the collection of blue screens with different numbers of terminals and letters of departure halls reveals that this is a constructed image. In his work Frankfurt, Gursky is not capturing any specific situation, but depicting the phenomenon of the airport as a transitional space with a virtually endless succession of destinations.

The other work, Mayday V (depicted above), over 3 by 2 metres in size, features an even stronger geometric visual structure. People appear on every floor within the grid of an immense, illuminated building. It is possible to distinguish between them, yet they lack any sense of individuality. They are subordinate to the compelling, almost abstract grid of the gigantic box of blocks. Mayday V depicts the loss of individuality in a society that is determined by collective structures. The compelling magic of Gursky’s abstract geometric design also places the emphasis on the formal qualities of the picture. 

This acquisition is a welcome addition to the two works by Gursky already in the Stedelijk’s collection: Theben, West (1993) and Autosalon, Paris (1993-1996). The 1989 portfolio Düsseldorfer Fotomappe in the Stedelijk’s collection also contains a photograph by Gursky, along with work by Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Axel Hüte.

Gursky’s work relates to both the history of photography and to recent developments in painting and sculpture. In his use of colour and his focus on an alienating, everyday reality, Gursky is inspired by 1970s American colour photography by artists including Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfield and William Eggleston. However, his emphasis on repetition, grids and abstraction also shows an affinity with the minimal art sculptures of people such as Donald Judd. 

Andreas Gursky is among the leading photographers of his generation. Of all the students taught by Bernd and Hilla Becher at the art academy in Düsseldorf, where Gursky studied from 1981 to 1987, he is the most radical and trailblazing. With their clear conceptual methodology, the Bechers inspired an entire generation of German photographers, which also included Thomas Struth and Thomas Ruff. The work of Bernd and Hilla Becher, Struth and Ruff is also represented in the Stedelijk’s collection. The Bechers worked in black and white, in series consisting of identical shots of industrial constructions, and created ‘portraits’ of objects such as gasometers, mine shafts and grain silos. In their work, they paid no heed to classic elements of photography, such as spontaneity, viewpoint, chance, special composition and use of light. The Bechers demanded a methodical approach from their students, together with the use of technical cameras on stands, which are slower than movable 35-mm cameras, but achieve a much greater wealth of detail. Gursky took to working in colour almost immediately, employing a medium format in the late 1980s and later moving on to a large format. Colour photography was not taken seriously in the art world until the 1980s – it was seen as purely commercial photography. 

In the mid-1980s, Gursky found his signature style in his choice of subject and his detached, ironic and sharp approach. He ‘rediscovered’ the camera’s ability to see more than the human eye can register, something that only becomes visible when the negative is magnified. The cameras he used enabled him to make very sharp prints in increasingly large formats. Gursky made good use of this fact, always choosing high, distant standpoints from the late 1980s onwards: he photographed landscapes from a helicopter, mass meetings from a crane and buildings from a vantage point opposite. As well as showing a fondness for subjects such as industrial landscapes and urban structures, streams of tourists and the movement of groups of people in public spaces, he has focused increasingly on subjects that he sees as encapsulating the zeitgeist, capturing factories, airports, trade fairs, hotels, office buildings and department stores as metaphors of modern life, in which alienation and globalisation play a role. 

Gursky’s photographs have no vanishing point, simply because, since the early 1990s, he has used digital manipulation techniques to combine different shots to create a single image. This is how he creates the confusing experience of micro- and macro-nuances. The digitally manipulated colours further reinforce the decorative and abstract character of his pictures.  

Details of the acquired works:

Mayday V, 2006. Chromogenic colour print behind Plexiglas, 324 x 217,9 cm, number: 5/6
Frankfurt, 2007. Chromogenic colour print behind Plexiglas, 238 x 506 cm, number: 6/6
Purchased from: Galerie Monica Sprüth & Philomene Magers, Cologne (2009)