Doubling back through Wolfgang Tillmans’s substantial retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, “To look without fear,” I paused in front of a black-and-white photocopy of handwritten text on spiral-bound paper from 1992. The German words (also the work’s title), translate to “who dares to love lives tomorrow.” Given the artist’s history of photographing friends, lovers, and club scenes as much as political rallies, I took love here to mean something cooperative, what scholar Martin Hägglund, in an interview with Tillmans for the artist’s 2019 guest-edited issue of Aperture, calls “a secular impulse to cultivate our shared life,” even as “interdependence is so painful and constraining under capitalism.” This easily missed work captures the overall impression of kinship that emerges across the exhibition—a kinship that perhaps echoes the political sentiment of the period in which Tillmans found his footing, one that saw the continental shifts of German reunification and the formation of the European Union.
Occupying the entirety of the museum’s sixth floor, the show spans decades, assembling everything from Tillmans’s early Xerox explorations, signature portraits, object studies, and abstract photochemical pieces to his forays into video and more recent post-Covid pictures. The photographer’s signature wall presentations of different-size works hung at varying heights compacts the sheer density of the work. In nearly every room, save those devoted to moving image work, the salon-style amalgamations form image communities that not only play with viewers’ expectations of scale, thematic relation, and display (most unframed works are hung with tape or clips), but also toy with our sense of the ordinary, the extraordinary, and the ephemeral. Tillmans asks us to meander through potential narratives. As art historian Yve-Alain Bois writes in one of the many insightful contributions to the exhibition catalogue, with these installations, “we are invited to play as well: we are summoned to draw links, to imagine connections.”
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Take, for instance, the first room, where that framed photocopied notebook page hangs near the floor at the lower left of one of the densest clusters. The surrounding prints of varying dimensions foreground everything from a close-up of a mother spraying milk from her nipple (Milkspritz, 1992) to several magazine spreads (including one documenting gay pride from a 1992 issue of i-D magazine) to portraits of Aphex Twin (1993), Isa Genzken (1993), and St. Etienne (1991), as well as to intimate snapshots like that of a man bending over beneath a rush of water, spreading his buttocks apart (arse in fountain [repro], 1994). Such constellations suggest a familiar domestic vernacular through their informal arrangement and conveyance of a person’s interests, attractions, and affiliations: as one of my students said, “This is how I hang shit in my apartment.”
Tillmans’s images from the 1990s also foreground subcultures (of which the artist was an intimate part) that reshaped the emergent continent’s social spheres. Androgynous, sweaty, and tender in their attention to queerness, the figures Tillmans depicts are often engaged in communal play. They entwine on the beach, casually inspect each other’s genitals, sweat on the club floor, and offhandedly pose for the camera, as in Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees (1992), in which both people are naked save for their coats, one a red latex trench and the other a long military jacket. In these pictures, one senses a newfound, somewhat leisurely euphoria.
Yet what Tillmans captures is not only the elation or event itself, but also a bittersweet proximity to the feeling that sometimes translates into a palpable nearness to death. While the photographer never depicts war, suffering, or loss directly, he arrives at it through works like 17 years’ supply (2014), picturing a collection of empty HIV medication bottles and boxes. Taken 17 years after Tillmans’s partner, Jochen Klein, died from AIDS-related pneumonia, the photograph measures the elapsed time through what could be the corresponding volume of prescriptions, in a kind of photographic inversion of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s eternally disappearing mounds of wrapped candy. The video Lights (Body) from 2002 has a similar feeling of absence as it matches an infectious dance track by the French rock duo AIR with close-ups of colored lights and mirror balls in vacant discos. Later in the exhibition, a group of works from 2008–11 captures empty airport arrival corridors, border control signs spelling out phrases like rest of the world, and a rescue mission for a refugee ship near the Italian island of Lampedusa. An orphic sadness marks these works even if the implied loss occurred before or after the image was taken.
“To show the fragility of a print is to show its strength,” says Tillmans in his short text “On Paper,” fittingly placed toward the end of the catalogue, one of two accompanying publications skillfully edited by the show’s curator, Roxana Marcoci. It is one rationale for his seemingly nonchalant displays, which viewers might be tempted to dismiss now that we are mired in Miro boards, Instagram feeds, Captchas, and iPhone albums. But if collectivity is about being next to and near others, then Tillmans’s oeuvre is an admirable catalogue of adjacency of all kinds. It insists on the necessity of physical presence, and reminds us to persist in fabricating a complex interdependence.