Standing in front of the vast, panoramic expanse of Los Angeles, the viewer is instantly blown away by the power of Andreas Gursky's vision. Impossible to convey in reproduction, the cinematic breadth and aching sweep of the glowing horizon line which emphasises the curvature of the earth's surface is quite simply awe-inspiring. Measuring over three and a half metres in width, this ranks among Gursky's most ambitious works in terms of scale, a gaping window onto a world that places the viewer in the position where its maker once stood. A monumentally-scaled vitrine of contemporary life, it hints at the subconscious order that permeates the complex landscapes which we, as humanity, have fashioned for ourselves. Offered for the fist time at auction, Los Angeles is the calling card of the leading light of a generation that has redefined the lexis and praxis of photography and whose images best encapsulate contemporary life through his views of the different containers in which we play out our lives.
Using a traditional large format view-camera to accentuate to the rich tapestry of detail on such a massive scale, Gursky presents the Los Angeles skyline in magnificent grandeur, a vista engraved in our collective consciousness by numerous films produced by the city's infamous movie industry. From a distance, the viewer is struck by the enticingly seductive, romantically inspired composition: generating a luminescent haze of orange mist against a pitch black night sky, the throbbing metropolis of the City of Angels fills the lower third of the strictly regimented composition. In this expansive vista, individual details are subservient to the overall structural design. By photographing the scene at night, the topographical complexity of the city is schematised into a narrow 'zip' of light, the frenetic hustle and bustle of city life blurred through time-lapse exposure into streams of pulsating energy. As the artist says, "You never notice arbitrary details in my work. On a formal level, the countless interrelated micro and macro structures are woven together, determined by an overall organizational principle" (the artist cited in Exhibition Catalogue, Edinburgh, The Dean Gallery, Andreas Gursky: Photographs 1994-1998, 1999, p. 5). Abstracting what he sees from the specific to the generic, Gursky elevates the everyday by emphasising the overarching structure, thereby imbuing it with epic presence. In Los Angeles, he formalises and geometrises the geographical structure, cropping superfluous detail in order to lend the image a timeless quality and hypnotic stillness.
Yet, as with all of Gursky's best work, Los Angeles offers the eye continual reward from a distance to close up. As the viewer approaches, the geometric order of the composition starts to dissolve into the chaos of city life. It becomes clear that the orange halo that enshrouds the landscape is in fact the smog emitted by the city's crippling quantity of cars; the complex matrix of streets makes us aware of our compartmentalised existence, the rat race of urban living. When we look closely, we see that the orange stratosphere is punctuated to the left centre by a cluster of skyscrapers - the nerve-centre of the Downtown Financial District. In this web of existence, Gursky constructs a fine balance between order and chaos and a tension between maverick details and overarching order. This is enhanced through Gursky's inimitable sense of perspective, which places the viewer at a critical distance from the image. From our godlike vantage point, the sprawling metropolis below us is reduced to the scale of an ants' nest. Our omnipotence forces critical reappraisal of our surroundings, momentarily freeing our eyes which are habitually blinkered by the monotony of routine existence. Like an aircraft coming in to land, we witness our environment from a stunning new perspective. Moreover, by using a wide-angle lens to subtly emphasise the curvature of the earth's surface, Gursky lends the view an otherworldly characteristic, as if seeing civilisation from space. This is reinforced by the relationship between sky and earth in Gursky's composition: the emptiness of the night sky fills the top two thirds of the composition, pressing down on the earth's surface and hinting at the infinity of space beyond. Quite unexpectedly, Los Angeles, one of the biggest conurbations in the United States, a cultural and economic hub testament to human ingenuity, engineering and intelligence, becomes insignificant in the grand scheme of the universe. This theme of man and our place in nature is a reprisal of one of the most enduring themes in Western art and of German Romanticism in particular.
The analogy to painting is an important one, for in Los Angeles Gursky addresses the grand tradition of landscape painting, reconfiguring our traditional understanding of the genre into a rigorously contemporary image. The key protagonist in establishing parity between photography and painting in contemporary art practice, Gursky is acutely aware of his artistic heritage and borrows liberally from other art forms to extend the range of his chosen media. Here, the sweeping horizon line is an open emulation of the compositional devices of classical painting. Like Caspar David Friedrich, he creates amazing force through a commanding pictorial scaffold which, when scrutinised, reveals a rich tapestry of detail. Friedrich deployed such breathtaking devices to illustrate the divine order of existence; Gursky, on the other hand, uses similar techniques to expose the subconscious order that permeates contemporary society. While Friedrich shows the beauty of nature, Gursky shows the intrinsic beauty of our own manmade environment.
Gursky's engagement with art history does not end with the Old Masters. His efforts to reduce everything to its essence resembles the constructivist approach to early abstraction and in Los Angeles in particular we sense his delight in the ravishing purities of Minimalism. As Peter Galassi explains, "Behind Gursky's taste for the imposing clarity of unbroken parallel forms spanning a slender rectangle lies a rich inheritance of reductivist aesthetics, from Friedrich to Newman to Richter to Donald Judd" (Peter Galassi, 'Gursky's World' in Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Museum of Modern Art, Andreas Gursky, 2001, p.35). In Los Angeles, the strong horizontal is reminiscent of the composition of Rhine I, a seminal work from 1996, in which the horizontal frontality of the composition emphasises the flatness of the picture plane. This ineluctable flatness was the Holy Grail of modernism, as predicated by Clement Greenberg in the 1950s. In Los Angeles, the shadow which throws the immediate foreground into darkness compresses this city of four million into a narrow matrix of abstract light, similar in structure to a Barnet Newman 'zip'. In Los Angeles, unlike in Rhine I, however, the receding streets in the centre of the composition - the main arteries of the city - create a sense of perspective which, like the landing lights that illuminate a runway, draws our eye towards a vanishing point on the horizon in the manner of classical perspective. This sense of spatial depth holds the flatness of the picture plane in perfect check, creating a tension which energizes the image.
It is this balance which is at the heart of the success of Los Angeles: tension between flatness and perspective; between clean-edged modern abstraction and the spatial recessions of classical landscape, between areas of localised detail and the overarching pictorial scaffold. It is with this work that Gursky asserts his claim to art history, synthesising his understanding of his predecessors into an iconic contemporary image rich in associative meanings.
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