Wolfgang Tillmans seems to think we’ve all lived the life he photographed. “I can reach out to someone if they recognize a feeling,” he said, claiming to be able to read his audience’s minds: “‘Oh, I’ve felt like this before. I remember jeans hanging from a railing, although I’ve never seen that exact pair. I saw my oranges on a windowsill.’ It’s the feeling that I’m not alone.”
Wolfgang Tillmans: Look without fear, a comprehensive retrospective at MoMA in New York, is brimming with such moments of perceived appreciation. In fact, there are oranges on a windowsill and a pair of jeans dangling from a railing. Plus living rooms defaced by the debris of a night out and a plethora of hairy armpits, hairy balls, and stubbly heads. People dance, kiss, clean themselves in baths and showers. Tillman’s work thrives on the sense of community these fragments of existence could foster, moments preserved and ennobled by the fact that he observed them. Surely you, dear viewer, who know sweat and boots and hangovers, are moved by the realization that others have too.
Or maybe not. Tillman’s photographs emerged from a context that is fleeting and club-like rather than universal. Technically haphazard or fuzzy, they speak most evocatively to those who were young in the 1990s — particularly the subculture of ecstatic dance parties, exuberant sexual experimentation, cassette mixtapes, filthy apartments and stained sheets. I’m of Tillmans’ generation, but not of his world, and the feeling I get from his early photographs is less “you were here” and more “you had to be there”.
MoMA’s eruption brings the full force of the museum’s institutional prestige behind the work of the 54-year-old artist. Eight years in the making, with 417 works filling the entire sixth floor, the exhibition aims to be definitive. It also appears to be saying goodbye, because while Tillmans may still have decades of creative work ahead of him, he seems exhausted as a photographer. “To look without fear” revolves around the period between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Brexit, when Europe was a country of open borders and carefree cosmopolitanism. It oozes nostalgia for a time before ubiquitous digital cameras and social media, when professionals could tickle connoisseurs by celebrating amateurism, and the idea of not documenting much could still be read as transgressive.
His most memorable photos came early in his career. A 1992 shot shows his friends Lutz and Alex sitting in a tree wearing only fancy raincoats, which open to reveal their pre-lapsarian nudity. Like mischievously androgynous versions of Adam and Eve, they have climbed the forbidden tree and sit entwined in foliage, their deafness fixed forever. The offbeat indie publication iD included this shot in a spread of Lutz and Alex’s cryptic relationship (titled “Like Brother Like Sister: A Fashion Story”), propelling Tillmans into the world of magazines, photojournalism, art galleries and museums .
From the beginning he understood the power of art historical references to elevate the everyday. Portraits of his friends are reminiscent of the scrawny, elongated bodies of German Renaissance nudes. In a 1988 self-portrait in a bathing suit, Tillmans takes on the contrapposto of Cézanne’s monumental Bademann (a star in MoMA’s collection). Anders pulling a splinter from his foot (2004) evokes the twisted body and fixed concentration of Spinario, a Roman bronze in the Metropolitan Museum collection.
MoMA recognizes these ties to the past, but is far more intent on pumping up both Tillmans’ radicalism and his continued relevance. In a catalog essay titled “The Wandering Image,” senior curator Roxana Marcoci points out that his work has appeared in many formats: postcards, posters, music videos, set designs, and so on. “Transmitting, sharing and releasing images, multiplying their lives, he proposes a fully democratized art experience,” she writes.
Never mind that he was hardly the first photographer to publish where and how he could, or slip from the refined to the plebeian and back again. More importantly, Marcoci’s assertion, like the show as a whole, ignores the way the smartphone and social media have decentralized, disseminated, and democratized images more thoroughly than any single maestro ever could.
Now everyone can do what Tillmans did in the 1990s: appreciate the magic of banality. Sure, he was eerily prescient about today’s deluge of pets, plants, selfies, sunsets, and dick pics. He saw such undifferentiated snapshots as agents of empathy, all-in-one oracles of feelings, thoughts, and ideas. But what happens to your uniqueness when your insight becomes obvious? MoMA wants to provide an argument for a work that ultimately fails because of its own mediocrity. To say that he was there first is not enough.
Tillmans rejects the whole idea of a photograph as an aesthetic object, but also becomes touchy when critics dismiss his work as superficial. “A painting by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner or George Grosz of a nightclub scene from Berlin in 1924 [is] seen as culture in a museum,” he said. “Whereas people would dismiss a wild night at the front nightclub as a decadent party.” He seems to be confusing theme with form. Grosz made nightlife important because he brought his talents as a painter and draftsman to political satire. Tillmans has no such power.
What makes this retrospective so disappointing is not only the work’s unassuming artistry, but also its stunted consistency. Tillmans hasn’t evolved much since his heyday, which he’s trying to hide with a non-chronological arrangement. Though he continues to adore youth, his improvisational style has aged poorly. In 2008 he began digital photography, the precise luster of which subverts the self-made roughness, suddenly making his post-conversion images more impersonal and generic. Sparse abstractions that suggest close-ups of crumpled fabric, terrazzo floors, or drying paint are as interesting as they sound. He tries to balance the sparse charm of these sterile works by interspersing them between shots of unwashed, uncompromising youth, and making them really big too.
The installation is part of the opus. Tillmans prints his paintings in sizes ranging from postcards to murals and hangs them in seemingly random groupings, including at toddler height or near the ceiling. Some are taped or pinned to the wall, while others are carefully framed. Navigating this exhibition feels like a game with secret rules and no apparent goal.
This dorm style comes across as affected, a way to distract from repetition. The approach is more reactionary than radical. It has often been emphasized that photography lies somewhere between a mass-market medium and a museum object, and the intentionally informal hanging is reminiscent of El Lissitzky’s 1929 film and photo Showcase with avant-garde photographs and MoMA’s own family of man Box office hit 1955.
In the end, the current show succeeds in subverting its own premise: instead of presenting Tillmans as the central, decisive figure, it shows a timid, backward-looking artist left behind by his own revolution.
Until January 1st moma.org