Right Beneath Our Noses: The Beauty in Wolfgang Tillmans
Wolfgang Tillmans: PCR at David Zwirner
September 16 to October 24, 2015
525 West 19th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 727 2070
Clothes cascading from a washing machine, with the compositional grace of court drapery.The world upside down from the perspective of a baby held by a man with a beer in his other hand, her arms and legs flared out in joy. Men’s limbs packed abstractly into a picture frame as a hand rummages inside red shorts.
The imagery of Wolfgang Tillmans is deceptively artless. There are over 100 new works in his show and most could be shown with his work of 20 years ago with no break in style. Within his parameters, however, he constantly tests ideas about photography all the while documenting friends and his immediate environment one moment, activist and gay subcultures the next. In times like our own when lifestyles and personas are so carefully mediated and “curated”, all awkwardness edited out, Tillmans’ quiet insistence in framing content that is gritty, quotidian, or overlooked becomes a bulwark against slick image control.
Tillmans’ first published photographs, of Hamburg nightlife, came out in the British magazine i-D in 1988, a moment when hierarchies of art world, fashion and magazine cultures were being redefined. (Damien Hirst’s Freeze exhibition also happened in 1988, for instance, as artists sought to sidestep the art establishment). i-D magazine was started by former Vogue art director Terry Jones; intrigued by the punk scene, he wanted a forum that reflected street fashion and genuine youth culture. i-D’s acknowledgement of diversity and idiosyncratic beauty were expressed through its photography and design choices and it became a precursor to European ‘anti-fashion’ magazines such as Purple Prose and, in their early years, Self Service and The Face. This ‘realist’ aesthetic was refined by photographers Corinne Day, Jurgen Teller, Terry Richardson, David Sims, and Nigel Shafran, many emboldened by the fearless work of Nan Goldin and Larry Clark in the US and Araki in Japan.
Though Tillmans had been influenced earlier by northern British bands and the sophisticated album covers of Peter Saville, the new ‘realism’ had seeped into music and magazine culture as Tillmans night clubbed and studied at the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in the UK between 1990-1992. It is significant after only eight years he became the first photographer and non-British artist to win the prestigious Turner Prize.
Tillmans understood early the need for the avoidance of closure. Each image is a result of micro decisions, from “how would I take a picture of this?” to making a final edit that is not too easy or familiar, and appears to contribute to his hidden compositions that often have a slow reveal. He restlessly recontextualizes his work, each installation constituting, in itself, a separate art piece, the exhibition a labor of relationships between architectural space, images and scale. At his Zwirner show there is a photograph of presentation in progress, studio still life, a, 2013, with large prints covering walls, but then unexpectedly smaller pictures high, creeping up to the ceiling en masse like a colonizing army of ants. Tillman’s makes no distinction between his work appearing in a magazine spread, commercial gallery or fine art museum. Prints are unframed, taped or pinned to the walls. From the outset he used context as a tool for his own ends, ignoring preset rules about how photographic work should be presented or given value. His career has also straddled the divide between analogue and digital photography with remarkable integrity and grace, which this show now emphasizes.
Tillmans lives and works between London and Berlin, and the sensibilities of both cities inform his vocabulary. Tender, candid, intimate portraits of friends and their abstracted body parts, still lives of fruits, or activists in gritty streetscapes are all shot frankly, often in overcast, northern light. But he works hard to make the audience work too. With Patti Smith, Glastonbury, 2015, we see domed camping tents under the grey festival sky and it takes time to figure out that the distant angled projector screens filled with Smith’s face are her oblique portraits.
In Simon, Sebastian Street, 2013, is a portrait of one of his closest friends whose knowing gaze is directed at the camera. The image is so low key it is hard to figure out what the pull is, why it is compelling. Only a study of the elements around him reveal that the lights above his head and the lines of the table radiate from a vanishing point that ends at the eyes, giving the compositional aura of a Renaissance saint. We revisit other old friends of the artist, Alex and Lutz, who in another i-D magazine story from 1992 appeared refreshingly raw and liberated sitting semi-naked in trees with long, open PVC coats. Twenty-three years later they look at us in Alex and Lutz, Hindenmithstrass, 2012, with the same unabashed matter-of-factness and close cropped hair, the past co-existing seamlessly with the present.
Different from Tillmans portraits are the exploratory and process driven ‘Silver’ series, which reveal his imaginatively technical side. These are experiments with the alchemy of photography where residue and silver particles are re-photographed, or alternatively left physically on top of the image, expanding concepts of photography as image or object. His photograph as object would have sat nicely alongside work in Peter Bunnell’s 1970 landmark show ‘Photography Into Sculpture’ at MoMa, with exquisite work by late ’60s and early ’70s artists such as hugely influential UCLA teacher Robert Heinecken, who worked outside traditional ideas of photography; Richard Jackson,who used negatives as sculptural forms; and the young Ellen Brooks who re-mixed photography and other materials into new objects.
Tillmans is an outlier, very different from the previous generation of German photographers like Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Ruff and Candida Höfer, influenced as they were by Bernd and Hilla Becher and their attendant high seriousness. Critics accused him, in the 90s, of photographing shallow, vacuous, unimportant subject matter, but there is no corresponding surface dispassion or lack of depth to his work to accord with this criticism. The random, slightly chaotic nature of his compositions captures meaning and tenderness and accumulates in his oeuvre into a form of romanticism. Tillmans has indeed said that photography was a way to deal with “bearing the meaninglessness of everything”.
A striking, large inkjet print has been given pride of place in one gallery. It shows a common garden weed growing between mossy paving stones. The colors are lush and nuanced as only the best printing can give, with rich dark greens and purples. Caught in a ray of diffused light, the weed is erect, plucky and fragile. It describes perfectly Tillmans concerns, that beauty is there right beneath our noses, unexpected and between the cracks. You just have to look.