Museum  September 29, 2022  Barbara A. MacAdam

Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear

Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

Wolfgang Tillmans, Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees (1992)


Eight years in the making, this sprawling show of some 350 photographs, videos, and multimedia installations is filled with factual content and ambiguity. Containing works from the 1980s to the present in non-chronological order, this exhibition demonstrates Wolfgang Tillman’s range of experience, expertise, sensitivity, disillusion, and engagement with art, as well as the world, from numerous perspectives. 

Tillman’s perception of a visual democracy is expressed in his proclamation: “If one thing matters, everything matters.” The work also includes art-historical references from Sigmar Polke to Alex Katz, from Jim Dine to Matisse.

Not only does Tillmans create art, but he also designs its context. Often, it’s the interval, or silence, between images that hold our gaze. Talking to Gregory Crewdson at Yale University in a class about the potential of the gallery space itself, Tillmans notes how “a room becomes one work – one installation – at the end of the process.”

Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

Wolfgang Tillmans, Icestorm (2001).

At 54 years old, Wolfgang Tillmans continues to expand his purview. The works on view are nothing less than the universe and its inhabitants – above and below ground, accommodating celebrities, immigrants, and even rats. They are also the smallest most insignificant objects, like a cluster of dangling keys, a cigarette lighter, and a dumb vibrating leg (referencing nineteenth-century motion-capture experiments). The substances themselves are also highly important – how materials on their own make art. 

Nothing escapes his eye. Tillmans was enthralled with astronomy from childhood, raised on telescopes. He later moved on to working with photocopiers, enlargers, and finally video cameras. He visited NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the European Southern Observatory and took many photos of space. Continually traveling and following the action, Tillmans captures scenes around the world, from Berlin clubs to life on Fire Island, to Africa, and of course, the stratosphere, with his base remaining in London. 

Image courtesy of the artist, David Zwirner, New York / Hong Kong, Galerie Buchholz, Berlin / Cologne, Maureen Paley, London

Wolfgang Tillmans, Victoria Park (2007)

We quickly realize how equal everything is for him when we perceive the power of high- and low-tech in his work, right down to drawing with light on exposed photographic paper, where scribbles resemble hair and skin and fabric and blood vessels. Among the most compelling and enigmatic pieces in the show are paper-drop images, where paper takes on colored light and assumes a sculptural form, which the artist then photographs and renders flat. Are they pictures or objects, art or still life?

So much in the show is deadpan – think Warhol and late Rauschenberg. We see this in the disconcerting image, Lutz and Alex (1992), two androgenous-looking adolescents sitting in a tree, seminude and expressionless. Friends from Tillmans’s youth punctuate autobiographical moments in his oeuvre, like the image of German artist Jochen Klein soaking in the bathtub. Klein, whom Tillman called the love of his life, died of AIDS in 1997.

Tillman comes off as both slightly shy and confident; he is resistant to criticism and interpretation. Things just are what they are. His figures and props are mostly static. Similarly, his objects are all rendered as very still-life-esque, but shown as investigations. The abstract works with their bumps and bruises show the most dynamism, drawing us in with their surface activity.

Museum of Modern Art, New York

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from September 12, 2022 – January 1, 2023. Photo: Emile Askey

There’s a room full of vitrines, texts, and taped-to-the-wall images, with newspaper clippings and images of war. Whereas there is a lack of warmth in the flatness of most of the images, the music videos by Tillmans are emotionally and visually compelling, with rhythm adding to the visual depth. Here, especially in works from the 1990s, Tillmans connects directly and invasively with his audiences. Electronic music, light, life, and technology. It’s a steamy brew. He captures the image and frenetic motion of dust, for example, in beams of light, as in his 2002 Lights (Body) video playing “Don’t Be Light (the Hacker Remix)” by the French duo Air. 

Brashly gay, Tillmans documents sexual and ecstatic partying encounters. Though HIV positive, treatment has kept the disease under control. An image of a box full of his empty pill bottles is a poignant in-your-face still life, as is a beautiful portrait of a water bottle on a hospital tray supporting a cell phone.

He wonders, “How can anybody want to make life on Earth hell for others when you see just how tiny and meaningless you are in this big picture?”

Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear was organized by the David Dechman Senior Curator, Roxana Marcoci, Curatorial Assistant Caitlin Ryan, and former Curatorial Assistant, Phil Taylor. 

About the Author

Barbara A. MacAdam

Barbara A. MacAdam is a New York-based freelance editor and writer, who worked at ARTnews for many years as well as for Art and Auction, New York Magazine, Review Magazine, and Latin American Literature and Arts. She currently reviews regularly for The Brooklyn Rail.

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