Wolfgang Tillmans’s Museum of Modern Art retrospective is one of the biggest New York shows mounted since the start of the pandemic, and its grandness is felt right from the start in the unlikeliest of ways: a video of a wet leg stepping up and down that’s projected from floor to ceiling. The video’s subject matter is banal, and yet Tillmans has cast it at a scale most artworks will never achieve. In this show, and in Tillmans’s universe, nothing in the world is too small to merit greater attention.
What follows this 2017 video, aptly titled Einbein (leg), is a whirlwind of images, people, places, and ideas. There are around 400 pictures, to be exact—more individual works, even, than the Whitney Museum’s portion of last year’s Jasper Johns blockbuster.
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It’s a huge show for an artist on a fittingly epic quest: to find a way of portraying every aspect of the world through photographs. The show confuses and confounds with its surfeit of imagery. In the end, it also astounds, revealing itself as one of the year’s finest museum exhibitions.
Here, you’re just as likely to find a portrait of the rapper Frank Ocean as you are to see images of a cute-looking mouse poking its head through a bag of trash. Crude shots of Tillmans’s friends in various states of undress share wall space with more refined pictures taken at protests around the world; cameraless abstractions and still lifes appear side by side. Photographs documenting the aftermath of all-nighter parties—strewn-about trash, flickering lights, coils of wiring hooked up to unseen speakers—recur throughout, as do landscapes snapped from high up in the air. All of it, no matter how amateurish it may look, leaves you breathless.
Don’t come expecting a traditional retrospective. In keeping with Tillmans’s preferred exhibition format, curator Roxana Marcoci, who worked on the show with Caitlin Ryan and Phil Taylor, has chosen to nix any wall text altogether. (A brochure that lists all the works’ titles, along with short explanations of just a handful of them, is available for the taking.) Pictures are arrayed all around, with some shown on emergency-exit doors and in interstitial spaces between galleries, and none of them are exhibited in frames, as they typically might be at a glossy MoMA show. Instead, Tillmans has pinned his photographs to the wall using slender nails or affixed them using tiny pieces of tape, making the whole hang feel temporary, even subject to change.
In a way, that extends to how the show loosely tracks Tillmans’s career, beginning with his experiments from the ’80s and culminating in more recent works. But Marcoci and Tillmans don’t seem interested in tracing his evolution as an artist. Biographical information is generally confined to the show’s informative catalogue, and the chronological progression is gradually eschewed as the exhibition goes on.
What this means, then, is that it’s largely up to the viewer to extract meaning from these images, which are often so personal that their backstories are legible only to Tillmans and his loyal fanbase.
Some of what’s depicted in these images will be instantly recognizable to many. Here’s a spritely Chloe Sevigny holding a guitar, ready to shred. Here’s the photographer Nan Goldin, lounging in a park. Here’s Tillmans himself in the shower, water streaming all over him. Here are two men engaged in a passionate makeout session—an image originally shot in 2002 at the Cock nightclub in London that went viral 14 years later, following the Pulse shooting in Orlando.
Far more engrossing, however, are the pictures that are less easily explained. AA Breakfast (1995) is an image of a person sitting before an airline meal of French toast and orange juice; from beneath his seatbelt extends his erect penis, which is striking because of how out of place it seems. Two photographs from 2002—one taken during the day, the other at night—show an apple perched in a tree, along with a handwritten note that says “PLEASE Leave this one.” Why, or how, this incongruous fruit has been placed there, and by whom, is left ambiguous, as is the reason for why someone may want to steal this apple in the first place.
These photographs seem casually thrown together, as though they were done on the fly. The lighting is shoddy, and their compositions aren’t neat. They look like snapshots, a term that Tillmans has said he hates.
Tillmans’s images may have an unprofessional look, but that’s his preferred aesthetic, one that he has been meticulously cultivating for decades. He first hit it big in England during the ’90s, when his photographs appeared in the glossy fashion magazine i-D. Two of his friends, Alexandra Bircken and Lutz Huelle, appeared in some of these pictures, including the famed Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees (1993), which features the two balancing on branches, wearing only trendy trench coats that are left open. This picture and similar ones, including a memorable shot where Alex grips Lutz’s flaccid member, are included matter-of-factly in this retrospective, printed at relatively small sizes, as if they were dashed off by Tillmans, and not produced for a fashion shoot.
Slick and sexy, the Alex and Lutz photographs emblematize the über-cool youthfulness of Tillmans’s early work. But by that decade’s midpoint, he’d also made clear that he was interested in moving his photography in more conceptual directions.
The erotic dimensions of his work turned global in Soldiers, a work begun in 1999 in which Tillmans re-photographed images of buff young men at war and the headlines used to describe their supposed heroism. As curator Sophie Hackett points out in the catalogue, the pictures may refer to geopolitical conflict that occurred anywhere from Europe to Asia and the Middle East, but they were in some way personal to Tillmans—he culled them from publications based in the U.S., the U.K., Germany, and Italy, all of which are places where he visited or resided during this work’s production.
Tillmans is hardly alone in suggesting that the world today is packed with photographic imagery. But rather than meeting the incessant flow of images with a circumspect eye, he warmly embraces this avalanche of photography.
His MoMA show is chock full of pictures about picture-making—copier beds photographed mid-scan, shots of installers putting together his exhibitions. Particularly in those latter pictures, Tillmans proposes that humans and the stream of pictures they produce daily can coexist.
Lünberg (self), taken during the 2020 lockdown, furthers that line of thinking. It features a FaceTime session shown on iPhone gently propped against a water bottle on a tray. In the upper left corner, Tillmans is shown holding his camera to his phone’s lens; he appears to be in a hospital bed. Not even a pandemic could keep him from creating new, meaningful images.
Tillmans’s voyage to invest photographs with value seems to have taken him to every corner of the earth, from the streets of Hong Kong to the sea near Lampedusa, Italy. His search has brought him beyond this planet—he’s created dazzling images of the stars at night and celestial orbs. But even when his camera seemingly travels light years, Tillmans views all this subject matter in relation to himself. After all, even the outer limits of the universe constitute a part of his world.
And no matter what, humans—in particular their bodies—are always at the center for Tillmans.
In 2000, when he toted his camera on a London Underground train, he imaged not the riders’ faces, but their armpits peeking out from shirt sleeves and their hands gripping poles. In 2014, when he shot a Black Lives Matter protest in New York, he pictured not the protesters themselves but their hands, whose palms he photographed in achingly beautiful detail.
Even when bodies aren’t immediately present, it’s not hard to imagine them far away. In his 2002 work Lights (Body), one of the few videos featured in the MoMA show, Tillmans offers footage of a dark club’s pulsing lights. You never see any writhing dancers beneath them, but you can easily conjure their glistening flesh. In his 2014 photograph 17 Years’ Supply, Tillmans pictures a box filled with prescriptions for Didanosine and other medications used to treat HIV. It’s a poignant reminder that bodies—including the one belonging to Tillmans, who is HIV positive—are fragile things. Might as well memorialize them while you can.
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That all brings us back to Tillmans’s legs. One is seen from a high-up oblique angle in his 1986 photograph Lacanau (self). Garbed in a pair of Adidas shorts, this leg stands atop what appears to be a sandy beach. What kind of self-portrait is this, where we can barely discern a body and don’t even see a face? One in which an artist and everything around him have fused entirely, becoming one.