Wolfgang Tillmans credits as his first significant photograph a hard-to-read shot of a young male body—his own. He was 18, a high school student on a monthlong coming-of-age train trip away from his hometown of Remscheid, Germany. On a beach in southwestern France, holding a range finder camera borrowed from his mother and wearing his favorite shorts and T-shirt, he experimented and wound up with a semi-abstract composition in the manner of a Milton Avery painting: a curving patch of pink cotton, the clothing label in white on black trunks, a tan leg stippled with sand, and a mottled brown beach that takes up half the frame.
“I was looking at the ocean and had a very acute sense of being, that I am in my body on the earth on this beach at this moment,” recalled the 54-year-old artist in New York this past June, three months before the opening of “Wolfgang Tillmans: To Look Without Fear,” a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, which runs from September 12 to January 1, 2023. “That may be the point of departure for all my work. It is, on the one hand, not very tangible or newsworthy, but conveys a strong sense of being in the here and now.”
Even though Tillmans lived in New York from 1994 to 1995, and has owned a beach house on Fire Island since 2016, this is his first solo museum show in the city. Because his photographs capture and scrutinize the incessant barrage of contemporary life, they can appear, at first glance, to be as guileless as snapshots. They impose a formal unity without losing the impression of randomness. His attraction to fluidity makes Tillmans an exemplary artist for a time in which everything—from world politics to personal identity—is in flux. “He has a very wide-ranging practice that encompasses video, sound and light work, writing, graphic design, and activism,” said Roxana Marcoci, senior curator of photography at MoMA, who oversaw the exhibition. “In photography, he is, to me, one of the most amazing artists, someone who really excels in portraiture, landscape, abstraction, still lifes...I cannot think of another person.”
Tillmans was excited that the exhibition would occupy the entire sixth floor of the museum, about 18,000 square feet. It’s his largest retrospective since his first American show, organized in 2006 by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. “We decided to lay it out in a roughly chronological order, even though I am known for hanging older and newer works together to let them cross-pollinate,” Tillmans said. “It was interesting at this historicizing moment to have a room devoted to the ’90s, and to realize that the ’90s, which seem to me to be within grasp, are now 25 or 30 years ago, and many visitors will have never experienced them.”
A detail from “Soldiers: The Nineties,” 1999 (56-part installation).
Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees, 1992.
The Cock (kiss), 2002.
When I caught up with Tillmans again by Zoom in mid-July, he was in Berlin, quality-checking prints to be sent to New York and playing with a large 1:10 scale model of the MoMA rooms. The way he installs his gallery and museum shows can be as unorthodox as his photographs. “He’s got photos framed and unframed, photos with texts, photos in vitrines, photos in magazines,” said Chris Dercon, who cocurated a Tillmans exhibition in 2017, when he was the director of Tate Modern. “I see him as a model many artists are moving toward, in between genres—photography and painting, photography and architecture. He’s inventing a new genre. And he’s an influential artist because he decided early on to take on the life of youth, and the idea of queerness and homosexuality in a very refined but dangerous way. You have to make up your mind when you see his photographs.”
Tillmans, the youngest of three children, was raised by parents who ran a tool-export company. Fascinated by astronomy, he rigged a camera to a telescope as a boy, but his path to photography really began with a Canon digital laser copier. He used it to make enlargements of portions of his own images and, on occasion, newspaper photos, with the pixels as prominent as magnified skin pores. Hung as triptychs at a gay café in Hamburg for his first show, the photocopies underscored both the materiality of photographs and the partiality of our gaze—themes he has continued to engage with throughout his career. Gradually, photography with his own camera became an end in itself.
The repurposing of found photographs was an important part of his early practice, underlining his belief that the essential skill of a photographer is the ability to see clearly. In “Soldiers: The Nineties,” a series he completed in 1999, he reproduced photos of men in military uniforms that he had noticed appearing often in newspapers, even though the ’90s were supposedly a period of peace. Unlike Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, and other appropriation artists of the postmodernist Pictures Generation, he was less concerned with authorship and originality and more intrigued by the political and erotic power of a publicly disseminated image. As a conscientious objector who refused conscription in the German army, he questioned why he found the pictures fascinating. Some of the attraction was surely homoerotic: In one photo of a helmeted soldier in Kosovo, there is a strangely suggestive composition of openings—eyes, nostrils, rifle muzzle. Beyond his personal libidinal tug, though, Tillmans recognized that even after the Cold War, hostilities were proceeding in Kuwait, East Timor, and the former Yugoslavia. People noticed this on one level and ignored it on another.
A similar urge to spotlight something that everyone pretends not to see led Tillmans years later, in 2002, to photograph armpits in the London Underground. Social protocol permits people to ride in packed cars while ostensibly ignoring the proximity of erogenous zones. “I like to draw attention,” Tillmans said. “It’s the same modus as with the soldiers. Let’s be aware of how these things work.” Despite all appearances to the contrary, the photographs of the straphangers were not documentary, but staged. “It is not necessary to harass people in a crowded train,” he said. “It’s the authenticity of the gaze and what you see. How I get it doesn’t matter. A camera can make documents that should not be forged, or it can make pictures that can be theatrical.” A similar ethos applies to his portraits. For his 2016 shot of Frank Ocean, he placed the musician in the shower, using the flow of water to accentuate vulnerability and fluidity. With less control but a similar result, he created a portrait last year of Kae Tempest, a spoken-word performing artist, in a Brighton park that was suddenly deluged by rain.
The Spectrum/Dagger, 2014.
Kae Tempest, 2021.
A clear-eyed view of the erotic is one theme that runs through Tillmans’s work. His earliest published photos proselytized for sexual freedom, stemming from “an awareness of how many problems in the world arise from people being uptight about their sexuality.” After moving from Germany to England in 1990 to study at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art and Design, he photographed in clubs late at night, capturing “guys and girls feeling each other on the dance floor.” He published photographs of revelers who were under the influence of MDMA in independent magazines like the London-based i-D. “It was a revolutionary moment, changing lives and the perspective of how people are supposed to behave in a nightclub,” Tillmans explained. He continues to participate in the club scene and has occasional side gigs as a DJ and musician. (Late last year, he released Moon in Earthlight, his debut album of electronic and acoustic music.)
His fashion preferences are decidedly casual. A tall, athletically built man with a ready laugh and a soft-spoken, outgoing manner, he comes across as unpretentiously scruffy, favoring sneakers, shorts, and a day or two of beard growth. Indeed, he can be viewed as an early influencer in the movement of streetwear into fashion. In 1992, for i-D, he dressed his close friends and London flatmates Lutz Huelle and Alexandra Bircken in surplus designer and secondhand clothing and shot them in a park, in some instances gazing at or holding each other’s genitals. In the most striking image from that sequence, he had them climb a tree, naked under their utilitarian outerwear. “We wanted to show an open relation, without fear,” Tillmans said. It was the opposite of classic fashion spreads: These were attractive but ordinary-looking people in nondescript sites. They looked playful, not artificial. Sexual, not glamorous. It was a flash news report from and for a new generation.
Tillmans made a frictionless transition from magazines to fine art, crossing a boundary that others perceived but that he never recognized. London gallerist Maureen Paley showed an inkjet print of Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees at UnFair in Cologne in 1992. Going there to install it, Tillmans met an assistant to the gallerist Daniel Buchholz, who invited him to do a show in Cologne a few months later. (Paley and Buchholz, along with David Zwirner, continue to represent him, and Tillmans still accepts magazine assignments; his career has been marked by consistency and loyalty.) Only seven years after the Buchholz show, he became the first photographer and the first non-British subject to receive the Turner Prize awarded annually by Tate. He is also the only artist to have had solo exhibitions at both Tate Britain, in 2003, and Tate Modern, in 2017. “I had always wanted to work with him,” Dercon said, referring to the 2017 show. “The response was really good. Many, many young people. Visitors from other disciplines, from the music world, from the fashion world.”
Since the beginning, Tillmans has examined the physical reality of his art form. Technically speaking, a photograph is a mechanically printed image that is generated by light. After buying his first film-processing machine, when he graduated from college in 1992, Tillmans observed, while cleaning it with water, a residue of silver oxide slush. He ran paper through it and created shimmering abstractions—the first of his “Silver” series, which now includes more than 200 examples. “He has this whole idea of making mistakes on purpose to see what comes out of it,” Dercon said. For more than two decades, he has also worked on “Freischwimmer,” images that he creates without a camera. He moves varying light sources over photosensitive paper that he has exposed to colored light; the abstract images are filigreed with scratchy marks and shaded to suggest aqueous depths. In “paper drop,” a later body of work, he artfully illuminates a sheet that is rolled over on itself to achieve three-dimensional elegance. “After years of working with paper, I finally made it the subject of a photograph,” Tillmans said.
In the manner of a painter, Tillmans often groups knickknacks, fruits, houseplants, and whatever else is at hand in his home or studio, and then depicts them as a tableau. He made one such photo last year in a room above his studio in Berlin. Waking up on a winter morning, he saw fresh snow outside the window. He had a collection of marbles that reproduce the patterns of Earth as seen from space, and he arranged them, along with some stones, tree bark, shredded paper, and a few bright orange segments of a clementine that he topped with caps of snow, on a white marble counter. “It’s a little on the edge of the absurd,” he said. “Why should there be snow there? Is it too contrived? I would never do a still life about global warming, but there are these Earth marbles and snow melting.”
A still life of an artist’s personal objects can be seen as obliquely autobiographical, but with 17 years’ supply, a 2014 photo of a boxful of empty plastic pill bottles, Tillmans veered sharply toward the confessional. Coming out as gay in the ’80s, Tillmans never experienced sex unshadowed by death. “I feel death is very present,” he said. “It has been with me. A certain ability to enjoy, to embrace the pleasure of seeing, of looking, of looking without fear, is a positive outlook which I have fortunately had while being fully aware of my own fragility. The positive aspect may be more important than the suffering and scare of AIDS.” Tillmans insists that his work is not “diaristic,” and he points out that many people depend on drugs—insulin, thyroid hormones, and so on—to control chronic illness. But as a young man, he says, “I could connect to that experience of growing up with the knowledge that sexual contacts or relationships could bear death.”
The dark premonition came true. In 1997, his boyfriend of almost three years, Jochen Klein, a German painter, suddenly fell ill, and died of AIDS-related pneumonia a month later. The catastrophe overwhelmed Tillmans, who canceled his engagements and took few photographs as he cleaned out Klein’s studio and grieved. “I was very much overcome by the power of it all,” he said in an interview five years after Klein’s death. “I felt crushed, of course, but it felt so powerful that I couldn’t really rebel or complain. It was the biggest thing that had ever happened to me, and so I never felt anger because when something is so powerful, what can a little bit of anger do against it?”
After Klein was diagnosed, Tillmans was tested and learned that he, too, was HIV-positive. He began antiretroviral therapy, retaining the pill containers once he emptied them. “I was fascinated by the specificity of these generic-looking pills, that these white or beige-colored objects contained materials that so particularly targeted the cells of my body,” he explained. He wasn’t thinking of using the canisters in an artwork, until one day he took them out and placed them on a table. “And then when I packed them away again, I thought, It is much better to photograph them in the box. Titling it 17 years’ supply gives the illusion of volume.” He exhibited the picture the following year. “I noticed it had my name on the bottles,” he said. “I could have chosen to take it off, but by that point, in 2015, the question was whether it would be defensible for a person in my position to remain undisclosed. It was really also about modern medicine and not just HIV medicine. It is not just my personal situation. I think hallelujah for this modern chemistry.”
Faltenwurf (skylight), 2009.
Bakerloo Line, 2000.
Tillmans is deeply engaged socially. In 2005—long before people were talking about fake news—he began a project he calls “Truth Study Center,” in which he lays out printed materials on glass-covered tables in his gallery and museum shows, to highlight the provisional and relative nature of what is presented as absolute truth. (He is making an up-to-date display as part of the MoMA exhibition.) The following year, he opened the Between Bridges nonprofit exhibition space in London. Now located in Berlin, it showcases artists or artistic subject matter that Tillmans believes to be underrepresented. He was active in the campaign opposing Brexit. As board chair of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, he is leading a fundraising drive to celebrate its 75th anniversary. “It’s demanding, but it gives a sense of connectedness,” he said of the endeavor. “Photography is very inward work.”
A midcareer retrospective provides an artist with a vantage point that can be vertigo-inducing. As he reexamined his prints for the MoMA exhibition, Tillmans was reflective. “It made me think, Some of your best work you may already have done,” he said. “That was a process of acceptance. I find that when I haven’t done a good new work for a couple of months, I get a little underlying nervousness. And when a new photograph or video or installation happens and I tread new ground, it is very comforting and feels, ‘Okay, you can still do it.’ As a lover of pop music, I always thought: How could these great artists who made two such amazing albums fizzle out on the fourth one? So the question ‘Have I still got it in me?’ is only natural. But it seems to go on, and there is new work, and so I feel, I guess, really happy.”
All artwork: © Wolfgang Tillmans, Courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne; Maureen Paley, London.