Andreas Gursky, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, 1997 (detail), Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Andreas Gursky: Stock Exchanges

by Boris Cornelissen | 30 May 2020

As the global financial markets have entered another financial crisis, Andreas Gursky’s series of stock exchanges have once again become potent symbols of our global economic markets. This week I will be looking at two of the works from this series that are housed in Australia: ‘Chicago Mercantile Exchange’ (1997) and ‘New York Mercantile Exchange’ (1999), as well as what was once the largest collection of Gursky’s stock exchange photographs in public or private hands, owned by an Australian collector.

See full list of Andreas Gursky works in Australian collections

“Few artists have managed to distill the specific characteristics of a certain culture, the mindset of a generation, or the zeitgeist of an era into a single work. Just as a handful of iconic paintings have shaped our view of the Renaissance, so too has Andreas Gursky captured the essence of the economic and social situation of the late twentieth century.”
– Nina Zimmer

With the self-proclaimed ambition to create an ‘encyclopaedia of life,’ Andreas Gursky’s oeuvre is diverse yet concise – he only produces around 10 images a year, mostly in small edition sizes. Early commentators on the artist were quick to focus on two of his most significant contributions to photography. The scale of his works (Gursky’s photographs were printed on the largest format possible at the time, and sometimes collaged together with different sheets to achieve such a size) allowed him to work with impressively large compositions, whilst maintaining an incredible level of detail. But he was also one of the first to embrace the possibilities of new technologies that allowed him to digitally manipulate his images, resulting in images that would not have existed in the real world.

So eager were critics to emphasise these two innovations within Gursky’s chosen medium of photography, that he soon stopped commenting on his own work to avoid such pigeonholing. And although his pioneering approach to photography certainly deserves analysis, what makes Andreas Gursky such an interesting artist is the depth of his work, beyond his substantial efforts to redefine the possibilities of the medium of photography. This is exactly what makes his series of stock exchanges, and indeed his oeuvre as a whole, more than merely visually spectacular images – which there is no denying they are.

Bernd & Hilla Becher, Framework Houses, 1959-71, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Bernd & Hilla Becher
Framework Houses, 1959-71
15 gelatin silver prints
each 40.5 by 30.5 cm.

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (donated by the John Kaldor Family Collection)

Andreas Gursky studied at the Dusseldorf Art Academy under Bernd Becher, whom alongside his wife Hilla Becher was amongst the most influential figures in the history of photography. Not only did they inspire a new generation of photographers to rethink their medium, they were themselves an important bridge between photography (which at the time was not yet considered an autonomous art form), and early conceptual art. Framework Houses (1959-71) from the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales is a good example of their approach to photography. In this 15-panel work their post-war industrial subjects are depicted with extreme conceptual rigour, using pre-determined compositional strategies that give each house a high degree of similarity. Where previously photography had been considered a passive medium, only able to represent what already existed in the real world, the Bechers demonstrated that their approach was able to constitute a visual language rather than merely copy it.

After the Bechers had bridged photography and conceptual art, Andreas Gursky and fellow Becher-student Thomas Struth took this a step further and explored a direct dialogue between photography and painting. Both artists produced a series of work that depicted paintings by artists such as Turner, Constable, Vermeer and Van Gogh (they even both photographed the same painting by Jackson Pollock). Shown as installation or as detail shots, these works were printed on such a large scale that almost forced the works into a dialogue with painting.

Thomas Struth, National Gallery 2 (Vermeer), London, 2001, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (acquired in 2003)

Thomas Struth
National Gallery 2 (Vermeer), London, 2001
152.5 by 175 cm.

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (acquired in 2003)

But Gursky’s engagement with painting went beyond this depiction of historical masterpieces, and is discernible throughout his oeuvre. After Gerhard Richter had attempted to achieve photographic effect in his early photorealist paintings, Gursky’s photographs aspired to a painterly status. As early as 1993, he focussed his camera on a grey carpet to produce a monochromatic composition called Untitled I that was an obvious reference to Richter’s grey paintings of the 1970s – and subsequent Untitled photographs all directly engage with this theme. Take, for instance, Untitled V (1997) owned by Australian collector Naomi Milgrom. The enormous 4,5 meter wide photograph shows a slick, minimalist display of neatly arranged rows of sneakers, invoking the language of minimalist artists such as Donald Judd, whilst also clearly demonstrating Gursky’s continued interest in the globalised commodity economy of the 1990s.

Andreas Gursky, Untitled V, 1997, Collection of Naomi Milgrom

Andreas Gursky, Untitled V, 1997, c-print, 185.4 by 442.6 cm. Collection of Naomi Milgrom

Donald Judd, Untitled, 1975, Douglas fir plywood, in 6 parts, each: 30.5 by 61 cm., Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (donated by the John Kaldor Family Collection in 2011)

Donald Judd
Untitled, 1975
Douglas fir plywood, in 6 parts
each: 30.5 by 61 cm.

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (donated by the John Kaldor Family Collection in 2011)

But what’s perhaps even more interesting here is Gursky’s elimination of a one-point perspective. This image would have been impossible to obtain from a single point of view, as we can simultaneously see every item across the composition frontally without distortion. This is achieved through the artist’s digital manipulation of several images into one, giving the viewer a clean, linear perspective that would be impossible to observe in real life. One could even argue that without the distortion of our one-point perspective, Gursky’s manipulated photograph produces a more accurate representation of the display.

This then brings us to another aspect of the artist’s oeuvre which is key to the series of stock exchange photographs. The space in Gursky’s photographs since the late 1990s is often constructed by the artist, yet despite being manipulated the images retain a degree of accuracy in their representational function – which seems somewhat paradoxical to the medium. On the one hand, this can be understood as a result of the new world they depict: life in the 1990s had become more abstract. Accurately representing the world of global capital and financial derivatives required a different approach than capturing the industrial world of his teachers. On the other hand, our relation to images had also changed radically: in an image-saturated culture, representation had come to inform our understanding of reality (Baudrilliard’s notion of simulacra). 

At this intersection of art-historical dialogue, technical innovations in photography, a radically new engagement with image culture and an abstract, global financial economy, is where Andreas Gursky’s stock exchanges are situated. Each of these were highly relevant issues in their own right, which makes the series somewhat of a key historical document of the 1990s.

Andreas Gursky, Chicago Mercantile Exchange, 1997, c-print, 185.5 by 245.5 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (donated by the John Kaldor Family Collection)

The artist first developed an interested in stock exchanges after seeing an image of the Tokyo Stock Exchange in a newspaper in 1990, and made his first work in the series that same year (illustrated later in this article). Coincidentally or not, Thomas Struth would that year also photograph another stock exchange, the Chicago Board of Trade, which Gursky would subsequently turn to for three different works executed between 1997-2009 (interestingly this is also the first market in the United States where futures and options were traded, and thus symbolic for the increasingly abstract world of global finance).

Thomas Struth, Chicago Board of Trade I, 1990, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (donated by the John Kaldor Family Collection)

Thomas Struth
Chicago Board of Trade I, 1990
138.2 by 116 cm.

Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney (donated by the John Kaldor Family Collection)

Gursky’s Chicago Mercantile Exchange (1997) and Struth’s Chicago Board of Trade I (1990) make for an interesting comparison. Both depict crowds of frenzied traders vying to get their orders in, but whereas Struth has opted for a rather chaotic composition with barely any structure, Gursky created a rigidly layered composition that seems to endlessly stretch both ways beyond the frame of the camera. Rows of computer screens, desks, traders and tables are stacked vertically to create a sense of rhythm: the mostly yellow screens at the top mirror the yellow traders at the bottom, five groups of traders in blue are spaced out between traders in red. There is an underlying compositional logic to the image that has been carefully considered and which has been realised through digital manipulation.

“On a formal level, countless interrelated micro and macrostructures are woven together, determined by an overall organisational principle. A closed microcosm which, thanks to my distanced attitude toward my subject, allows the viewer to recognise the things that hold the system together.” 
– Andreas Gursky

Andreas Gursky, New York Mercantile Exchange, 1999, c-print, 205.7 by 256.5 cm. Collection of Naomi Milgrom

Although a second work from the series, New York Mercantile Exchange (1999) does not employ the same vertically layered structure, it again is carefully composed. Aside from the symmetrical layout with screens that seem to float in the air, the small groups of figures in bright yellow create a visual rhythm in the otherwise dark-coloured crowd of traders that spread out in all directions. Comparing Gursky’s representation of the stock exchange with what it looked like in reality emphasises the extent to which the artist created his image (rather than captured it). Whereas the actual space of the New York Mercantile Exchange looks crammed and small, Gursky projects the image of a vast open space with no ceiling. The exchange is bright but chaotic with lots of banners; Gursky’s image is stripped back and set in a dramatically dark surroundings, with the trading screens hovering above the crowds symbolising the global market developments.

The effect of Gursky’s images, whether it’s his stock exchanges, super markets, night clubs, store displays or hotel atriums, is that of a deterritorialised space: they could be anywhere in the world. In that sense, Gursky mirrors the logic of the financial system he portrays – the homogonised space of corporate non-ideology. And in many ways, Gursky’s stock exchanges seem to represent the reality of a fast-paced, high-frequency trading global economy much better than the physical spaces themselves, even though his images are far from accurate representations of them.

But as our global economy has become increasingly abstract, so the representation of it finds less bearing in physical reality. The absence of borders in Gursky’s images captures its deterritorialised nature; the overarching sense of structure represents the market logic of late capitalism that dictates global economies; the large screens hovering above the traders signal their global interconnectedness, and the dark and dramatic settings emphasise its crucial yet often invisible place in our societies. Andreas Gursky’s encyclopaedia of life is not one that passively records the world, but one that constructs a representation which mirrors it more accurately. And this is precisely why Gursky’s stock exchanges are so important – not just as an incredible visual spectacle, but as documents of a global economy that is transforming into an abstracted, digital sphere.

“Gursky’s world of the 1990s is big, high-tech, fast paced, expensive and global. Within it the anonymous individual is but one among many.”
– Peter Galassi

It is interesting though unsurprising to note that Gursky’s depictions of this new globalised economy reverberated particularly with businessmen and businesswomen across the world. The two individuals responsibly for most of Gursky’s work in Australia, John Kaldor and Naomi Milgrom, were both successful in the fashion industry in Australia. It’s no coincidence then, that Naomi Milgrom collected Untitled V, with it’s 4,5 meter wide display of sneakers – and even less so that Gursky’s stock exchange series has often been collected by people in finance. The largest collection of Gursky’s stock exchange photographs was in fact assembled by Greg Coffey, an Australian fund manager who is known for his macro-economic investments (and who sold them at auction in June 2013 for a total of £5.4 million) – see the list below.

Andreas Gursky
Chicago Board of Trade I, 1997
185 by 241 cm.

Formerly owned by Greg Coffey.

Andreas Gursky
Chicago Board of Trade III, 1999-2009
223 by 307 cm.

Formerly owned by Greg Coffey.

Andreas Gursky
Kuwait Stock Exchange II, 2008
231.5 by 307 cm.

Formerly owned by Greg Coffey.

Andreas Gursky
Tokyo Stock Exchange, 1990
170 by 205 cm.

Formerly owned by Greg Coffey.

Andreas Gursky
Hong Kong Stock Exchange (Diptych), 1994
c-print, in two parts
each: 165 by 226 cm.

Formerly owned by Greg Coffey.

Andreas Gursky solo exhibitions in Australia

National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Andreas Gursky, November 2008 – February 2009, link

See full list of Andreas Gursky works in Australian collections