Andreas Gursky, Beelitz at Matthew Marks
Image copyright Matthew Marks.
We talk about reinvention as a necessity for artistic growth, when it really has just as much to do with the fact that we’d like artists to change so we don’t get tired of them, as it does there being any real need for it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating stagnancy, I just think it’s asking too much of artists to reinvent the wheel every time they have a new show. I bring the subject up because it in part explains why I don’t wholly buy Saltz’s thoughts that Andreas Gurksy is so much more boring now than he was before. I mean, if you’re going to complain about the grandiosity and theatricality of the work, you really should have started 15 or more years ago when he first started taking these kinds of pictures. Gursky’s better works clearly transcend the natural allure of his favorite subject matter the mass scale multiple, but I’ve personally always found it hard not to be suspicious of photographs that in turn so easily resolve themselves formally.
To be clear, it’s not that I disagree with Saltz’s evaluation that photographs aren’t as good as they have been – he also calls these pieces stale, which they often are – I’m just not sure that the pre 9/11 commerce-without-fear-art-world context Saltz attaches to the earlier work made it any more conceptually challenging. In fact, I suspect this period simply masked the issue that photographs were light conceptual investigations (often of commerce) by being much more overtly concerned with formalism (Vanessa Beecroft anyone).
With the exception of May Day V, which looks poised to be appropriated by Nike ads, and KamioKande, a photograph resembling a still from a 1990’s Hype Williams video, there are undoubtedly works worth viewing. I’m still not sure what Beelitz is for example, but it looks almost real enough to exist, and I rather like the mystery of purpose to the flat hive like space. I also like that the work may well signal the arrival of a time when we can view a work done by a major artist who employs photoshop and not immediately roll our eyes.
Unfortunately though, it also exposes the problem I’ve always had with Gursky’s work; it always seems like a bit of a stretch to call the work about anything other than formalism. If those are the artists concerns fine, but in cases like Bahrain, which show a fantasiful construction of a twisting desert highway, the artist really has to give the viewer a little bit more because it is much more specifically about constructing their own ideas. If it turns out a lot of them aren’t that interesting, you’ve got a problem.
For the record, there is certainly no reason to skip the show.