The textbook definition of “landscape” is a depiction of an expanse of scenery, generally seen from a single viewpoint, which, like fiction, not only displays, but also conveys a narrative of nature as filtered through one person’s perspective. In American art history, landscape painting holds an exalted position because it signifies a national identity animated by the combination of divine creative power and manifest destiny. From the monumentally scaled, highly theatrical Hudson River School paintings of Frederic Edwin Church (1826–1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830–1902) to the more intimate plein air expressions of William Merritt Chase (1849–1916) and William Glackens (1870–1938), artistic depictions of nature offer a continuous thread illuminating America’s collective imagination.
But “landscape” can also be understood as an action (enhancing the land to make it look better), as a way to define a situation (the economic landscape) or even as a psychological state of being (an emotional landscape defined by intellectual or imaginative characteristics). Both of these definitions coexist in Andreas Gursky’s photographs, a selection of which will be on view in Andreas Gursky: Landscapes, opening August 2 at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, New York. His monumentally scaled photographs capture in extreme detail vast natural landscapes, grand architectural edifices, broad open expanses of water, and masses of people engaged in daily life. For Landscapes he has selected a body of work as a studied response to his understanding of what he calls “the specific situation” of the Parrish: its location on the East End of Long Island and the historical tradition of artistic creativity for which the region is renowned. “For me,” Gursky noted, “it doesn’t matter if I deal with landscape, still life, interior, or architecture. For me it is just so much about my view on the world.”
Gursky makes photographs with a seemingly dispassionate viewpoint of an omniscient observer. He has spent much of his career photographing landscapes, recording them directly with a large-format camera in Klausen Pass (1984) or composing them digitally from a series of shots, as in Rhine II (1999). His images are titled simply and directly after the geographical place where they were taken. Early landscapes such as Engadin I (1995) or Tour de France (2007) specify location as a vast majesty of natural terrain within which humans only register on a minute scale. In Salerno I (1990) or Bahrain I (2005), however, man-made forms loom in the foreground, showing how humans stake a more emphatic claim on their environment by dramatically altering the terrain. Writing in Andreas Gursky: Works 80–08, curator Martin Hentschel posits the artist’s work as a “mental image … that has been passed down to us by the history of painting and inscribed into our collective memory.” No matter what their subject though, Gursky’s pictures reflect his idiosyncratic perspective on both topography and compositional structure. His landscapes are not only markers of a particular time and place, they are also something otherworldly: an image that surpasses the basic conditions of its creation.
Gursky’s signature accomplishment as an artist is his ability to estrange his image from normal perception. Ocean III (2010) asks viewers to assume the nearly impossible position of comprehending the macrocosmic, while Untitled III (2002) immerses them in a microcosmic viewpoint. These distinctions can also be expressed in contrasting terms of image density, as in Untitled XII (2002), or expansiveness, demonstrated in James Bond Island III (2007). In his work, polarities are often juxtaposed or inhabit the same space. Immense landscapes, such as Rhine II (1999) and Greeley (2002), or architectural investigations, like Schipol (1994) or Kamiokande (2007), compare and contrast seemingly unrelated themes—monumentalizing motifs, tiny details, patterns, manifold repetition, and compression of perspective—that are united to underscore Gursky’s fascination with how both man-made and naturally occurring structures shape human consciousness.
Nowhere is the dissonance between the natural landscape and the incursion of humanity through commerce and popular culture more evident than in such works as SH I (2013) and SH II (2014). In this series, the artist has most emphatically staged a psychological “place” in which humans occupy the landscape within a highly suggestive narrative. Gursky hasn’t consciously set out to revisit the rhapsodic romanticism epitomized by Caspar David Freidrich (1774–1840), although he readily recognizes that viewers may leap to that association. “If one compares the recent superhero images to the German Romantic period, of course there is a similarity of composition. But in developing the concept, it’s not that I have Freidrich in mind or that I construct the composition to resemble those pictures,” he noted. “As an artist, I acknowledge that there are icons in our collective memories, and I do hold that history in mind in the background.” What the artists do share is a willingness to assess the schism between the ideal of the earth as a godly creation and the reality of the impact incurred by human activity.
Throughout his career Gursky has explored the many nuanced facets of human existence. Highly detailed, his photographs are simultaneously deadpan observational and transcendent, encompassing both naturally occurring and man-made environments. Whatever his practical approach, the artist uses landscape to capture a sense of place and a moment in time that expresses his understanding of landscape as a site where human and natural forces collide in an increasingly homogenous world.
© 2015 Andreas Gursky/Artist Rights Society (ARS), New York/VG-Bild-Kunst, Bonn. All works are c-prints or inkjet prints. All dimensions include the frame.