Wolfgang Tillmans' 'To look without fear' retrospective at SFMOMA

  • by Robert Brokl
  • Tuesday November 21, 2023
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Wolfgang Tillmans' 'September Self-portrait, 2022'  (courtesy the artist)
Wolfgang Tillmans' 'September Self-portrait, 2022' (courtesy the artist)

Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans likes to shake up cavernous white cube museum spaces. With his retrospective exhibition, "To look without fear," he does so at the San Franciscco Museum of Moden Art, personally revising an exhibition that debuted in 2022 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The show, organized by MOMA's Senior Curator of photography Roxana Marcoci, is supported by a hefty catalog with a useful chronology.

Tillmans likes to play with preconceived notions about preciousness and presentation and conventional notions of "originals" and scale. He blows images up to mural size, then juxtaposes them with small photos taped to walls. He uses clips to hang images and eschews conventional installations. He also places the most arresting or provocative images in less-accessible spots.

Wolfgang Tillmans' 'Blue Self-Portrait Shadow' (Courtesy SFMOMA)  

For example, "rat disappearing" (1995), showing a rodent slinking down a sewer grate, appears in a staff entrance vestibule. "Dunst 1" (2004), shot from below, shows a male dancer clad in a skirt sans underwear and hangs some eight feet off the floor; "AA breakfast" (1995) pictures an airplane passenger with an exposed penis. Breakfast rests on a food tray above. You must bend down to see the picture.

Relentlessly curious
In person, Tillmans comes across as intellectual, sincere, unpretentious, and rueful, reflecting his relentlessly curious and innovative approach to photography. (If he read Peter Schjeldahl's review in the New Yorker where he's lauded as a "genius," he doesn't let on.)

Tillmans likens the freely hanging photographs and serendipitous accidents (like paper emerging crumpled from a copier) to sculpture. He strives for painterly effects with color and layering. He also disrupts the notion of "originals" and the tradition of limited edition signed prints: collectors get an original with a certificate, but Tillmans continues to use and show variations of those same images.

Born in 1968 in Remscheid, Germany, Tillmans has lived in London, New York, San Francisco, and now Berlin. Carrying on Keith Haring's tradition of activist-artist, he's campaigned against Brexit and the persecution of migrants and made pictures of Black Lives Matter events, anti-Iraq War protests, and queer young Africans fleeing homophobic violence.

Wolfgang Tillmans' 'Deer Hirsch'  

Tillmans' range of interests is, literally, cosmic: his earliest images were of heavenly bodies, one being the rare appearance of the black dot of Venus transiting the sun. A youthful self-portrait in red Adidas shorts signals his introspective nature.

Pointedly, he sidesteps considerations of high and low. Subjects include celebrities like Kate Moss or strangers like the one in "young man, Jeddah" (2012). He ignores distinctions of "appropriate" venues or publications. The orgasmic image of rocker Damon Albarn of the band Blur appeared on the cover of a September 1995 issue of Spex, a German monthly culture magazine.

Biography and assertions of gay identity infuse "Look without fear." Tillmans lived with the painter Jochen Klein, and he featured him in two photos, "Deer Hirsch" (1995), which suggests interspecies connection, and "Jochen taking a bath "(1997). They met in 1995, moved in together in 1996, and were unaware they were both HIV-positive until Klein died suddenly of AIDS-related pneumonia in 1997, three months after the bath portrait.

Tillmans' grief is reflected in the forlorn "o.M" (1997), a self-portrait in the emptied-out London studio they shared. The matter-of-fact evidence of Tillmans' drug regime — he benefited from the introduction of anti-viral drugs — can be seen in the boxful of pill bottles, shown in "17 year's supply" (2014).

A similarly provocative blurring of human/animal occurs in the arresting "Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees" (1992), originally published in i-D, a British magazine, in a spread titled "like brother like sister," part of a sexuality issue. The resulting controversy caused stores to remove the magazine.

Wolfgang Tillmans' 'Lutz and Alex sitting in the trees' (Courtesy SFMOMA)  

The SFMOMA brochure says, "...(these) two of the artist's friends...are neither siblings nor lovers, but their androgynous features and partial nudity suggest a form of kinship." Even with their incongruous raincoats, they resemble monkeys at a zoo, gaping back at visitors.

Tillmans explains this image as a reflection of the "utopian positivity" of the times, "genders living in equality," but he may have been surprised by the controversy aroused by the photo "The Cock (kiss)" (2002). The SFMOMA brochure quotes Tillmans:

"Questions of taste or beauty have always been politically charged for me. Do you find two men kissing disgusting or beautiful? That is a question of aesthetics but also of politics."

Captured at London's gay venue, The Cock, in 2002, "The Cock (kiss)" was widely shared on social media in the aftermath of the 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida — a defiant response to a statement by the killer's father that his son had been angered by the sight of two men kissing.

Tillmans often represents male and female anatomy as abstract forms, more for playfulness than shock value. Points of comparison: The San Francisco bisexual photographer Ruth Bernhard, with her nude female figures arranged in boxes, or Edward Weston, with his female nudes evoking organic forms like shells and vegetables, both escaped criticism for salaciousness. David Hockney, 30 years Tillmans' senior, sugarcoated the sexual transgression of his work. But Robert Mapplethorpe delighted in scandal, like the notorious "Man in Polyester Suit" (1980). Nan Goldin shares Tillmans' preference for depicting intimate situations, and while both lost lovers to AIDS, her demimonde is markedly darker.

Wolfgang Tillmans' 'The Cock' (kiss)  

Abstractions and Later Work
More recently, Tillmans, launched a series, "Freischwimmer (Free Swimmer)," of camera-less pictures using light to "draw" on chemically treated paper. The process, which he invented in 2000, evokes a liquid state, and images are often blown up to gargantuan scale, some eight by twenty feet. They tease with their suggestiveness of hair, traces of pigment and movement, but with their pastel colors seem better suited for corporate lobbies. Images from an almost equally abstract series, "paper drop," begun in 2001, are optically clever and initially mysterious until you realize the tear-shaped forms are really folded prints.

Some of these manipulations, such as "I don't want to get over you" (2000), part of Tillmans' "Intervention" series, are unarguably beautiful. The expansive image at the show's entrance combines painterly green streaks in the sky over a low landscape. The roiling black sea shown in "The State We're In" (2015) is most likely Tillmans' response to the environmental, political, and social crises threatening the world. A hardy survivor pushing up through bricks in "Weed" (2014) suggests what may endure.

A streetscape from 1995 looks down a stretch of California Street. Though relatively recent, it nevertheless feels historic. Look closely, and you can make out a sign for parking costing $6 an hour and a billboard for the now-defunct San Francisco Bay Guardian.

When asked at the press preview why he chose such a prosaic section of the City when other (presumably richer) possibilities were available, Tillman seemed at a loss for words. However, there may be an explanation. After receiving the prestigious Turner Prize in 2000, he followed up with a Tate Britain show in 2001 called "if one thing matters, everything matters," an expression that summarizes his practice of noticing and recording everything that passes before his vision.

'Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear,' Free-$30. November 11—March 3, 2024, Floor 7, SFMOMA, 151 Third St. www.sfmoma.org

(Originally published in Square Cylinder.)

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