- Andreas Gursky
- Rhein I
- signed, titled, dated '96, and numbered 6/6 on a label affixed to the reverse
- c-print behind glass in artist's frame
Matthew Marks Gallery
Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1997)
Milwaukee, Milwaukee Art Museum; Seattle, Henry Art Gallery, University of Washington; Columbus, Columbus Art Museum; Houston, Contemporary Arts Museum, Currents 27: Andreas Gursky, February 1998 - January 1999, cat. no. 6 (ed. no. unknown)
Düsseldorf, Kunsthalle, Andreas Gursky - Photographs from 1984 to the Present, August - October 1998, p. 51, illustrated in color and illustrated in color on the front and back cover (ed. no. unknown)
Cottbus, Kunstmuseum Dieselkraftwerk, Das flache Land. Positionen einer unspektakulären Sicht, July - October 2001
Standing before Andreas Gursky's formidable Rhein I, 1996, the viewer is immediately daunted by the power of the artist's vision and the labyrinthine depths to his mastery of his craft. Rhein I is a seminal culmination of the artist's profound recourse to the digital process of image making. The sole image enveloping the cover of the seminal 1998 Kunsthalle exhibition catalogue, Rhein I is at once the lexis and praxis of photography for an entire generation. Rhein I's extraordinary bravura shares the similar iconicity of Paris, Montparnasse (1993), 99 Cent Store, 2001, and Chicago Board of Trade, 1997. Rhein I's debut at auction therefore is a testament to the profound significance this image bears within his body of work, and its unparalleled approach to contemporary photography by means of manipulated pictorial tropes, results in an achingly stark tension between the formal and the representational, a device that is emblematic of his mature aesthetic.
Gursky's technical ability as a photographer was honed in the 1980's, while he studied under the eminent professors Bernd and Hilla Becher. The Bechers' teaching concentrated on the formal structure and documentary aspects of photography. Absorbing their systematically objective and rigorously conceptual style, Gursky's art provides a poetic commentary on our world, highlighting our relative insignificance within the magnitude of our surroundings. One of the first contemporary photographers to employ new photo editing technologies in order to manipulate and alter his large scale photographs, the genius of Gursky lies in the fact that while the audience may be aware that the image has been manipulated, they are kept in the dark as to which and how much the elements have been altered. We are forced to accept the inauthentic qualities in a seemingly objective reality. Gursky's modification flattens the image and emphasizes the formalistic structure of the work, making the image seem clearer but also more abstract at the same time.
Abstracting what he sees from the specific to the generic, Gursky elevates the everyday by emphasizing the overarching structure, thereby imbuing it with epic presence. In Rhein I, Gursky cropped all superfluous detail in order to lend the image a timeless quality and hypnotic stillness. Gursky himself has described Rhein I's conceptual origins, "there is a particular place with a view over the Rhein which has somehow always fascinated me, but it didn't suffice for a picture as it basically constituted only part of a picture. I carried this idea for a picture around with me for a year and a half and thought about whether I ought perhaps to change my viewpoint ... In the end I decided to digitalize the pictures and leave out the elements that bothered me.' (Andreas Gursky as quoted in Annelie Lütgens, "Shrines and Ornaments: A Look into the Display Cabinet," Andreas Gursky: Fotografien 1994-1998, p. xvi). Gursky jettisoned human presence and obliterated the background, wiping it clean of both incidental shrubbery and man-made structures and industry. His dismissal of these elemental realities was summed up by the artist, "I wasn't interested in an unusual possibly picturesque view of the Rhein, but in the most contemporary possible view of it." (Andreas Gursky as quoted in Exh. Cat. Andreas Gursky – Photographs from 1984 to the Present, Düsseldorf, 1998, p. 14). The end result is an image of representation aligned with artifice. The strong horizontal frontality of the composition achieves an ineluctable flatness resurrecting the treatises of modernism as heralded by Clement Greenberg in the 1950s.
The compositional infrastructure of Rhein I bears extraordinary likeness to the reductionist nature of Barnet Newman's 'zip' paintings. Rhein I is a photographic treatise of minimalist abstraction and the bare embodiment of the absolute. The organic flow of the river is now a frozen archetype; flattened into bands, resulting in an image, as many have observed, that becomes a natural photographic Newman – at once monumental and timeless. 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...[with] images that read like horizontal versions of Newman paintings." (Peter Galassi, 'Gursky's World' in Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Museum of Modern Art, Andreas Gursky, 2001, p. 35). " (Peter Galassi, 'Gursky's World' in Exhibition Catalogue, New York, Museum of Modern Art, Andreas Gursky, 2001, p. 35).
The carefully concealed artifice at play and the astonishing digital manipulation defines Gursky as the scion of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Thwarting the viewer from any central focus point and offering the eye continual reward, Rhein I is the result of the most rigorous and exacting processorial means. Selection and rejection of the location, moment, lighting, and calculated configuration, the exacting precision of this work cannot be underscored, as the six by seven foot span of the image is enshrined behind glass, unearthed from the industrial Rhein region. While jettisoning the factories from his image of the river, their industrial byproduct deliberately and specifically resides with the image, an invisible collision of digital technology and laborious industry.