Jerry Saltz on the Wolfgang Tillmans Retrospective at MoMA

Ora Sawyers

To look without fear is now at MoMA.
Photo: Emile Askey

Over the course of his 36-year career, the photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has created what I think of as a new sublime. His work conveys that the bigness of it all is no longer in God, the ceilings of the Renaissance, the grandeur of nature, or the allover fields of the Abstract Expressionists. Tillmans intuited that the sublime had shifted, had alighted on us. It’s in an overhead shot of friends wearing camo and military garb sprawled on the beach in a frondlike configuration and cradling one another — becoming a single organism with tentacles. It’s in a man holding a naked woman’s legs apart and looking below her exposed bush to the grassy dunes beyond. The people we see are often Tillmans’s friends: artists, musicians, designers, dancers. But these aren’t the usual club-kid, gay-bar, grunge-life photos. The rhapsodic rapport Tillmans has with his subjects gives his work a tenderness that seems almost sacred.

The Museum of Modern Art’s retrospective of Tillmans’s work, “To look without fear,” is a similar summoning of abundance.

The 54-year-old German is much more than a photographer; he’s a visionary polymath who has melted the borders between high and low, insider and outsider, commercial and esoteric. In 2000, at age 32, he became the first photographer to win the Turner Prize, and he has been the subject of two Tate exhibitions. He shot the album cover for Frank Ocean’s Blonde, contributes to i-D magazine, and makes music. (His album from last year is great!) He has been a performer, a filmmaker, an activist, and a DJ. It is no coincidence that the best photographer of his generation came out of such a varied background. Having fought for its high-art status for more than 150 years, photography, by the late 1980s, was overinformed by postmodernists who made work that mainly only the art world liked. Tillmans’s photos — influenced as much by raves and post-punk as the fall of the Berlin Wall — broke through that malaise.

When I saw Tillmans’s 1994 U.S. debut in a group show at Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, I did not recognize what he was doing as photography or even as art. He had several unframed photographs, mostly of young people; they were hanging out, sharing secrets, smoking, and dancing. There were things previously published in i-D, a portrait of the dancehall singer Patra in a glowing red gown and dangly earrings, and a guy with his dick out sprawled on the floor as another guy places his foot on his head. The overhead image of the friends in camo was what turned me around: the uniforms, the camaraderie, the proximity, the flesh. Tillmans has discussed using processes that “amplify voices that I feel need strengthening,” and “To look without fear” is full of amplifications of various tribes and subcultures. They suggest that the primal buzz we get from life comes from being with one another — that this is what makes us sublime.

Tillmans’s ecstatic vision lies beyond his ostensible subject matter, which, in addition to his intimate portraits, includes landscapes, still lifes, and abstractions. How to access that vision? Here are three formal skeleton keys that may prove useful for seeing the syntax and structures making Tillmans an artist to reckon with; each key begins with the word how: The first is how he displays his work, the second how he explores genre, and the third how he altered the graphic field of photography.

August self portrait (2005).
Photo: Wolfgang Tillmans

The way Tillmans installs his art changes the way audiences see it. Often unframed and taped directly to walls, his pictures ripple or pucker from humidity. It’s refreshing to see photographs freed from their sepulchral air locks. They are uncannily alive this way with life spans of their own. “I never thought of a picture as being bodiless,” he has said.

The number of pictures in a Tillmans installation will vary. Sometimes he fills whole rooms floor to ceiling with constellations of images. We see the show one work at a time but also in a helixing whoosh. At MoMA, the sizes go from billboard to small, from huge near monochromes to postcard-size pictures. The galleries are like cathedrals where everything matters, and we grasp that photography can be bigger than what we normally use it for.

By displaying his work this way, Tillmans brings the photograph into real space. You can sense yourself in relation to the work, your breath touching the surface; you can feel him as participant and spirit guide. It’s very sensual, this dance of subject, artist, and viewer. We do not just stand still and look forward when we look at a Tillmans. We become the full-body sensing systems that we are.

The second how pertains to genre. Tillmans doesn’t just work in different genres; he crawls into them, inhabiting and expanding them. All genres can be both skyscrapers and prisons, and Tillmans exploits convention rather than allowing it to riddle his work with cliché. He turns portraiture into a nearly mystical genre. He doesn’t want his subjects to be “at ease,” he has said, “because at ease you don’t get an intense picture.” Everyone now is so adept at self-presentation in front of a camera that most portraits look similar. Of course, the world never looks this way. It’s all projection and make-believe. Tillmans’s people are poised on an enticing edge. He wants subjects confronting existence, caught in a moment in time that “won’t come back.” He even got Kate Moss to stop being Kate Moss, giving us charisma without the corrosive effects of fame.

When it comes to landscapes, Tillmans presents scrotum-scapes, face-scapes, sky-scapes, wave-scapes, foam-scapes, clothes-scapes, and newspaper-page-scapes. At MoMA, there’s a grid of 56 pictures of the Concorde, each capturing the plane flying across the landscape outside the fences of Heathrow Airport in the spring of 1997. There’s no glamour here, no supersonic speed. The wealth of the passengers disappears. This is the Concorde without fanfare, a symbol of one of the last vestiges of optimism about the future — what Tillmans has called “a perfect machine that would go on forever.” The fact that “the concept was fundamentally flawed makes it very human,” he added. A Concorde crashed shortly after taking off from Charles de Gaulle Airport on July 25, 2000.

He’s great with abstraction. A standout of the show is the gorgeous Icestorm from 2001: a phosphorescent yellow-scape with red flares that may be clouds, blood, snow blowing. Or maybe they’re chemical stains on the surface created as he processed the picture. You see leaves and trees with the towering, complicated scale of an enormous sky and the greenery pushed forward. The granularity and saturation give the picture a handmade quality. Part vision, part apocalypse, it is staggeringly beautiful.

Tillmans has made huge photos that look like watercolors or drawings, as if he had rubbed sand into their negatives; pictures of what looks like static or sheets of paper dropped into wave patterns. There are darkroom accidents and cameraless pictures made by exposing paper to light. Photographic abstraction has been explored from the outset of the medium, but Tillmans infuses his technical virtuosity with luminous feeling.

The final how relates to the way Tillmans helped change what photos look like — not just his but yours and mine as well. Before the iPhone was ubiquitous, Tillmans decentered composition and injected an undercurrent of spontaneity, with tilted and distorted picture planes. His photos varied from high to low resolution and were focused and unfocused. The 2020 picture Lüneburg (self) acts as a commentary on the relationship between his work and the mass adoption of photography via the smartphone. It shows an unopened clear bottle of water on what may be a hospital tray in a plain room. An iPhone is propped against the bottle showing a FaceTime call to the artist’s boyfriend, who has just left the room, and we see Tillmans’s pink hospital blanket. “I saw the empty bed and colors and glass body leaning against glass water body and saw the possibility of making a picture,” he explained to me in an email.

We all know that impulse. And this is why even your amateurish pictures look at least a little interesting to you: the density of information, the jitteriness and accidental angles, the fleeting moment becoming memory in an instant. You realize that every part of a picture is exhilarating and that there’s more around the corner of what you’re photographing. In Lutz & Alex holding cock, a topless woman looking up and away reaches down and holds her counterpart’s cock as he looks the other direction. Heads and an arm are cropped. The photographer is at abdomen level, looking up as the white sky behind them disappears, grass comes in and out of focus, and scales shift. This is vision as sensing whatever is placed in front of it, capturing what it can, organizing it into recognizable patterns — the world as megapixels that we witness.

Beyond these three hows, we must ask: Where do all these photos come from? Their roots can partly be traced to the moment Tillmans burst on the scene in an era that saw boundaries collapsing, the fall of the Iron Curtain and apartheid, the end of Reagan and Thatcher. That feeling of progress may mark the difference between Tillmans and his great precursor Nan Goldin. Both artists give us friends, family, and lovers. Both give us pain, suffering, life, and death. But Tillmans’s world is not a war zone or people smashing up on the rocks struggling for fame and adoration. His world can be a bit utopian in that way, much of it coming at a time when some were declaring the end of history.

But this is only half of what propels Tillmans’s art. The rest is much darker. “The threat of AIDS has been with me for all my active sexual life,” he has said, “and so all the celebration and the joy and the lightness in my work has always taken place with that reality on board.” Tillmans has HIV, and the virus also led to the pneumonia that killed his lover, the German painter Jochen Klein, in 1997. Even though Tillmans’s pictures impart an electric love of life, feelings of foreverness and fecundity, he is snorting frosty air through angry nostrils, insisting that change must come.

On Instagram, Tillmans has begged “rich and educated Republicans” to stop Trump and has warned Europeans of neighbors with “nationalist and Christian-fundamentalist views.” Of his refusal to be acquired by megacollector Charles Saatchi, he has said, “I don’t think Saatchi cares about the art … He’s not a collector, he’s a dealer. And he made his money producing hate campaigns.” He talks about subjects the art world doesn’t want to talk about, the difficulty of being creative in a society filled with “people who would like us to rot in hell.”

I felt all this and more in one picture at Tillmans’s 2015 show at David Zwirner. This picture, which is also at MoMA, seemed next to nothing: a 34-by-42-inch image of a bunch of plastic bottles and boxes. It is shot at a one-to-one scale, meaning what you see is was what you would get if the objects were actually in front of you. The title of the picture is 17 years’ supply, and I realized the box is filled with the leftover packaging of Tillmans’s own antiretroviral HIV drugs. I was transported out of the gallery to doctors’ offices, hospitals, and emergency rooms, to a place of fear and helplessness and boredom, remembering an eternal moment when all this slipped into an astounding new normal. In 17 years’ supply, I saw a place in my own home.

In 2014, my wife was diagnosed with cancer. I was the one to tell her that her surgery had confirmed it as she lay in a hospital room. She had an operation and radiation. The cancer returned. She had another operation and chemotherapy. I know the life that follows the shock of a new ice age setting in. I know diagnosis and the 10,000 decisions that follow. I know the world of Tillmans’s image is not hell, mourning, terror, or loss. This is a picture of life. 17 years’ supply is food, water, air — the medicines that sustain us and keep us alive. The picture has become neolithic stone, a talisman with the aura of the everyday.

My wife and I also know what Tillmans knows: that our writing and lives lived in art get us through. Tillmans has never stopped working, and neither have we. We have a closet in our apartment that is a towering, disheveled Babel of drugs she is using. That is what I saw in 17 years’ supply.

I wrote to Tillmans to tell him that to me this was a picture of confession, consolation, and love. Our email exchanges unstitched me and made me see what I had missed. Cancer is different from AIDS. Cancer comes with support, acceptance, and an enormous medical apparatus to address it. AIDS was caught in a crossfire of hate, denial, ignorance, homophobia, racism, and the absolute twaddle of right-wing politicians and religion. As David Wojnarowicz wrote, “As a society we had to endure the media spectacle surrounding the polyps in Ronald Reagan’s asshole,” while the president ignored the AIDS epidemic. People with HIV were barred entry to the U.S. for decades. In the New York Times, the conservative hero William F. Buckley suggested that those with AIDS be tattooed on their forearms and buttocks. Tillmans’s response to all this has been to look deeply, steadily, and without fear. “To me,” he wrote, “it’s a hope, an encouragement, and a demand.”

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