The title of Andreas Gursky’s exhibition at Gagosian, Not Abstract II, on view through December 23, is curiously defensive. The German photographer is cognizant of how his work might be characterized, and determined to resist it. Its defining characteristic, consequently, is what it is not.
“My photographs are ‘not abstract.’ Ultimately they are always identifiable. Photography in general simply cannot disengage from the object,” Gursky is quoted as saying in the gallery’s press release. While Gursky’s photographs do contain some of the hallmarks of abstraction, including an emphasis on form, color, and pattern, it makes sense that he wants to discourage viewers from losing sight of what’s literally on display. Indeed, unlike the truest purveyors of abstraction, Gursky is not solely interested in aesthetics. The objects in his photos are important. The reality of what they depict matters to him.
Gursky’s subject here, captured in photographs from various series taken from 1999 through this year, is nothing less than the entire planet. The photographs are, accordingly, massive in scale. The largest among them is more than 11 feet tall. Much of their focus is on made-made spaces, particularly those that facilitate a capitalist society. There’s an Amazon warehouse, where rows of assorted goods comprise at least three quarters of the frame, blurring together like a single block of muddled paint. He makes a nearly identical composition in Mediamarkt, a landscape populated with irons, vacuums, and other household products. Ironically, in works like Lehmbruck II and Storage, Gursky includes the art market in his assessment of a system in which everything can be bought and sold.
Humanity’s impact on the earth is glaringly apparent in some of Gursky’s photographs of the natural world. In a series of several untitled works that have never before been displayed in the United States, Gursky takes an aerial view of tulip fields, meticulously and artificially arranged in neat strips of colors. In Les Mées, clusters of solar panels dominate rolling hills. Only a sliver of green remains untouched.
Gursky has long presented viewers with a distinct way of seeing. In this exhibition, he insists on a multi-sensory experience. As visitors peruse the space, they hear Canadian DJ and producer Richie Hawtin’s soundscape, created specifically for the exhibit. The music, much like the photographs it accompanies, is distinguished by repetition and sonic patterns. It contributes a layer of dystopian unease in the cold, alienating gallery space – not that Gursky necessarily needed any help on that front. Zoom out, his work suggests, and the world only gets darker.