Andreas Gursky has made his name depicting the unheroic, ordinary yet excessive structures of late capitalism: thousands of brightly labelled packets in a 99 cent store, or endless software production lines, reduced to colour fields; crowds of city traders or disco revellers moving as a single empowered mass. But his most famous image – the most expensive photograph ($4.3m) ever sold – is “Rhein II” (1999), depicting river, bank and sky pared down to abstract horizontal bands. Simple, systematic, distanced, dispassionate, it carries nevertheless the aura and power of romantic painting such as Caspar David Friedrich’s.
This exhibition of early photographs affords a chance to look at the influences that formed Gursky. Although the strict formality of his teachers, conceptual post-industrial photographers Bernd and Hilla Becher, was decisive, his first landscapes demonstrate how much his vocabulary for describing the extravagant banality of 21st-century life also derives from the German art of the sublime, Romanticism’s awareness of man’s insignificance before nature paralleling our sense of anonymity in a global homogenised society.
Gursky’s characteristic high vantage point, contrast between sweeping vistas and minuscule figures, tone caught between deadpan and enthralled, were all already present in the 1980s. “Seilbahn, Dolomiten” shows a mountain landscape with peaks covered in clouds, the vast expanse of white punctuated by the tiny dot of a cable car.
In “Niagara Falls”, a boatload of tourists are about to disappear into a flume of white crashing water wiping away all legible detail. In “Alba” we look down from the frame of a dark forest to a shallow, still river, barely a ripple on its surface, trickling over a stony riverbed where forms of wading fishermen are just discernible.
By 1993, in “Mettmann, Autobahn”, a bucolic scene is intersected by rows of silver-grey bars: a deliberate interruption of landscape, but actually a representation of a Plexiglas screen, a noise barrier on the motorway. The image embodies Gursky’s strange mix of formal methodology and naturalism, and anticipates the dominant grid aesthetic of his monumental later works.
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