by Robert Brokl
Photographer Wolfgang Tillmans likes to shake up cavernous white cube museum spaces. With his quasi-retrospective exhibition, To look without fear, he does so at SFMOMA, 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 with Curatorial Assistants Caitlin Ryan and Phil Taylor, is supported by a hefty catalog packed with images, scholarly essays and useful chronology.
What jumps out immediately are the myriad ways the artist 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 (“never pins!”) and eschews conventional all-in-a-row installations. He also places the most arresting or provocative images in less-accessible spots. For example, rat disappearing (1995), appears in a vestibule outside a staff entrance, showing a rodent slinking down a sewer grate. Dunst 1 (2004), shot from below, shows a male dancer clad in a skirt sans underwear, positioned eight feet off the floor; AA breakfast (1995) pictures an airplane passenger with an exposed penis. Breakfast rests on a food tray above. To see the picture you must bend down. Guards, no doubt, will have a field day enforcing distancing rules.
In person, Tillmans comes across as thoughtful, 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.) Indeed, Tillmans likens the freely hanging photographs and serendipitous accidents (like paper emerging crumpled from a copier) to sculpture and installs them in plexiglass boxes. He strives for painterly effects with color and layering, especially with his later, more experimental work. 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 lived in London, New York and San Francisco. 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. He also operates Between Bridges, a non-profit gallery showing under-recognized artists, including Sister Corita Kent and David Wojnarowicz.
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 and friends or strangers like the one in young man, Jeddah (2012). He seems to ignore 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 also 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, just 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 chilling but matter-of-fact evidence of Tillmans’ drug regimen—he benefited from the introduction of anti-viral drugs—can be seen in the boxful of pill bottles, shown in 17 years’ 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. 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.” Yet he seems surprised by the controversy aroused by another photo titled 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, sugar-coated the sexual transgression of his work. In contrast, Robert Mapplethorpe delighted in scandal—the notorious Man in Polyester Suit (1980) being a key case in point. Nan Goldin, another fellow traveler, shares Tillmans’ preference for depicting intimate situations, and while both lost lovers to AIDS, her demimonde is markedly darker.
More recently, Tillmans, who disdains the digital manipulations afforded by Photoshop, 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, unfixed state, with images often blown up to gargantuan scale, some as big as 8 x 20 feet. They tease with their suggestiveness of hair, traces of pigment and movement, but their pastel colors seem better suited for corporate lobbies. In contrast, 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, set against neutral backdrops, 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, displayed at the show’s entrance combines painterly green streaks in the sky over a lush, low landscape. It’s most likely Tillmans’ response to the environmental, political, and social crises threatening the world. A roiling black sea shown in The State We’re In (2015) and a hardy survivor pushing up through bricks in Weed (2014) suggest what may endure.
For viewers with more time and interest, a video room features Book for Architects—consisting of 450 images of architectural fragments taken over a ten-year period in 37 countries across five continents. While Tillmans insists he never wanted to be an architect, he clearly has a passion for buildings and design.
Another passion of his — politics — is on full display in the Truth Study Center. Tables of his design present articles, op-eds, scientific studies and his own photos. The challenge is to get viewers in venues like San Francisco and New York to pay much attention to facts they think they already know, but you can imagine the outcry over the installation, and outright censorship, elsewhere.
While Tillmans has been criticized for being a voracious printmaker, the artist maintains that he meditates on images long before settling on those he includes in any given exhibition. A streetscape from 1995, taken during his second visit to SF, 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.
Maybe Tillmans’ interlocutor, upon leaving the exhibit, had gotten her answer.
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Wolfgang Tillmans: “To look without fear” @ SFMOMA through March 3, 2024.
About the author: Robert Brokl is a painter and printmaker with an MFA from UC Berkeley, where he studied with Elmer Bischoff, Joan Brown, Jay DeFeo, Karl Kasten, Mary Lovelace O’Neal and Sylvia Lark. His work is in the public collections of the Library of Congress, Achenbach Foundation for the Graphic Arts (FAMSF), Oakland Museum of California, Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design Art Museum, the LGBT Historical Society Museum, SF; and Bates College Museum of Art. He was an artist in residence at the de Young Museum (FAMSF) in 2006, the year he was awarded a Gottlieb Foundation grant.