Executed in 2002, Copan perfectly condenses the cool and sheer aesthetic that informs the greatest of Andreas Gursky's works. This picture stands like a monolith before the viewer, towering over us on a scale that translates some of the massiveness of the Copan building in Sao Paulo, one of the grandiose masterpieces of the celebrated architect Oscar Niemeyer. The largest building in Brazil, Copan was originally planned to mark the 400th anniversary of Sao Paulo in 1954, but construction was delayed until 1957 and lasted until 1966. This length of time is perhaps unsurprising considering the vast scale, in terms of both concept and structure, of this sinuous, curving building: it contains over 1000 apartments and 70 businesses and necessitates a staff of over 100 to maintain it. Indeed, Copan is big enough that it was granted its own postcode.
The scale of this building, which bird's-eye views reveal snaking through the urban landscape of Sao Paulo, has allowed Gursky to capture it in such a way that the pristinely-captured details appear to fade into a strange unity, as was the case with his seminal Paris, Montparnasse of 1993. In Copan, the various sections of the building, and therefore of the picture whose composition it so nearly fills, each have their own style, resulting in its appearing as a series of vertical bands, with the first showing the almost corrugation-like surface of the left-hand sections, followed by the intensely colourful, Mondrian-like grid of the central area, itself relieved by a band of white. This forms part of a rhythmic series of verticals which progresses across the entirety of the surface, recalling the zip paintings of Barnett Newman and, with this upward sense of movement, invoking the sublime embodied in those pictures and in Niemeyer's utopian urban vision alike. Gursky has long used the views that he has captured in his photographs to create a dialogue with painting, with the formal qualities of two-dimensional art, and nowhere is this more evident than in the various 'styles' that one can perceive in Copan. The flecks of red, blue, yellow and pink of the polychrome segment in the centre, so reminiscent of Paris, Montparnasse, add a lively, almost painterly colourism to this photograph, implying that it extends, albeit in another medium, the artistic investigations of Gerhard Richter, bringing to mind both his Photo Paintings and of course his Colour Charts. Gursky has managed, using a style of photography that appears deceptively deadpan but which is in actual fact the result of composition and manipulation, to create a lush picture that is opulent in its detailing, which tantalises the viewer with the wealth of marks upon its surface, which has an abstract overall effect and yet remains emphatically figurative.
When Gursky created his masterpiece Paris, Montparnasse, the building that served as his subject stretched across so great a distance that he was obliged to photograph it from two vantage-points. This would come to have several significant implications in his works. Firstly, it meant that he began to use digital technology in a more intrusive way than he had before, moving on from merely highlighting and perfecting minor details to creating the entire composition through computerised means: as he explained, 'I have consciously made use of the possibilities offered by electronic picture processing, so as to emphasize formal elements that will enhance the picture or, for example, to apply a picture concept that in real terms of perspective would be impossible to realize' (Gursky, quoted in Lynne Cooke, 'Andreas Gursky: Visionary (Per)Versions', pp.13-16, Marie Luise Syring (ed.), Andreas Gursky: Photographs from 1984 to the Present, exh.cat., Munich, 1998, p.14).
The distant position that Gursky took for Paris, Montparnasse also meant that the building itself was photographed from a position that allowed the details to blend into one another when viewed from the slightest distance. This is also the case in Copan where, on close inspection, one can see the individual windows and apartments preserved in pristine condition yet on such a minute scale, especially in proportion to the vastness of the picture itself, that they almost immediately converge and unite. 'The camera's enormous distance from these figures means that they become de-individualized,' Gursky has explained. 'So I am never interested in the individual, but in the human species and its environment' (Gursky, quoted in V. Gorner, '... I generally let things develop slowly', partially reproduced at www.postmedia.net). In taking as his subjects a range of scenes from racetracks to supermarkets to stock exchanges to parliamentary buildings to the faded urban utopias of yesteryear, Gursky manages to highlight a certain underlying absurdity to all of human endeavor while also adding a dimension of social commentary, perhaps showing his own roots as a former student of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Perhaps, taking the Bechers as precedents, it is pertinent to consider Copan in the light of some of Niemeyer's other buildings, in particular the public edifices he designed for Brasilia, the new-build city, still considered a folly by many, which was created as the capital of Brazil. While Copan appears abstract, it retains a foot in the figurative and indeed in the political and the historical realms.
In Copan, then, Gursky manages to touch upon the sociological. And crucially, he never loses site of the metaphysical, presenting the various traces of human endeavor as components of an overarching vision of order. It is telling that Gursky has himself suggested that, 'My preference for clear structures is the result of my desire - perhaps illusory - to keep track of things and maintain my grip on the world' (Gursky, quoted in R. Rugoff, 'Andreas Gursky: World Perfect', Frieze, Nov-Dec 1998, reproduced at www.frieze.com). In this way, Copan functions as a form of urban epiphany through which Gursky reveals the sublime beauty of the modern world, exploring this fascinating combination of micro and macro.