Experimental photographer, social commentator, musician, writer. “Which Wolfgang do I prefer?” This has been the question on the mind of the German artist Wolfgang Tillmans, as he has spent the three few weeks installing much of his life’s work for his first ever New York museum survey. Throughout the process, it’s been bracing to realise that he might have already had many of his “greatest hits”, he jokes.
The exhibition, Wolfgang Tillmans: To Look Without Fear, spans the sixth floor of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and displays a staggering 417 pieces from over 30 years of his career.
The “greatest hits” are all there; the photos that are held as subcultural talismans – like his editorials for fashion bible i-D or BUTT magazine and intimate images of friends and lovers in the 90s. The photos that later became pop cultural iconography, such as the indelible cover image of Frank Ocean’s Blonde or the photos he loaned as book covers to the writers Olivia Laing and Douglas Stuart. There are the domestic still lives and Concorde Grid that lead him to win the Turner Prize in 2000, along with his groundbreaking abstractions. Plus portraits of famous faces like Kate Moss, Philip Glass, Lady Gaga and Patti Smith – although Tillmans rejects the word celebrity and clarifies that “you won’t find anyone famous for being famous”.
In an era where there is genuine talk of rescinding same-sex marriage in the US, where the state of Florida has a “Don’t Say Gay” bill, and a renewed sexual puritanism that has also seen a curb on women’s bodily autonomy, many of the works take on a particular resonance. For example, Truth Study Center (2005 – ongoing), an evolving series of cabinets combining newspaper clippings and scientific reports reflect Tillmans’s meditation on how the media shapes our reality and beliefs. His dispatches on LGBTQ+ rights activists in Saint Petersburg or LGBTQ+ Ugandans in the Kakuma refugee camp, meanwhile, feel a little closer to home. The anti-patriarchy sentiment of Fuck Men – a 1992 photo of a T-shirt Tillmans made with a Bruce Conner Atomic Mushroom – very much persists in this America, Tillmans says.
When asked about the current climate, he regretfully compares contemporary western culture to the Weimer Republic before Nazi Germany, when there was “great progress made” including a parliamentary committee recommending a repeal of the law criminalising homosexuality.
He remembers the 90s he photographed as having “a strong sense of barriers breaking down, things opening up, all-inclusive, more pansexual approach – which now seems a long way away,” he says. “The curious thing is we have vastly progressed and at the same time that progress seems to enrage people so madly they cannot give, like those conservatives who don’t want to give women the right to choose.”
In a different U.S state from New York, Tillmans’s playful glimpses of anatomy and expressions of gay pleasure almost feel like they could be subjected to censorship or attacks.
Tillmans’s images have previously become political statements – The Cock (Kiss) of two men passionately kissing was widely shared after the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando in 2016 in a message of anti-suppression. But he insists “the show is not a manifesto or a rallying cry … Maybe photos became standout icons for something, but there’s an openness, it’s not pushing a clearly worded message. I consciously chose that non-partisan approach.”
This statement feels far from the Wolfgang Tillmans who very vocally campaigned against Brexit five or six years ago (Tillmans now lives mostly in Berlin but keeps a studio in London). But – perhaps off the back of a recent New York Times profile questioning whether he would go into politics – he seems wary, and a little weary, of being forced into the role of political spokesperson. “Because of the last few years and the political crisis we are in I have ended up talking a lot about politics. There are of course connections throughout my career to politics – but it’s important not to lose sight of what you experience here.”
What he means by this, he elaborates, is his intention for the show as a more simplistic call for solidarity. If we had to push for through line in To Look Without Fear, it is undoubtedly collective care. “Absolutely,” he agrees. “In the last few months, I’ve come back to the thought that reducing suffering is the best that we as humans can do for each other. It’s a question of if you increase it, like Mr Putin, or try to improve it through interpersonal relations. My work is only the expression of how I am as a person – I am trying to care as much as I can, always knowing that one is failing.”
The result across the show is a kind of Tillmans–esque spiritualism; interconnectivity, bodies arm in arm, astrological images that might prompt us to question the verge of earthly visibility, how small we are in the face of it all. And in the second room, Deer Hirsch (1995), a spontaneous moment between man and nature taken on Fire Island, a place Wolfgang visits often and where he took some time out in the days before the show opened, a mark of his preparedness for the retrospective, but also a symbol of how his style requires being out in the world, experiencing the “unforeseen”. I ask if he parties as much as he used to and he smiles coyly. “When it’s “free” nightlife, not some hectic commercialised moment, it totally touches me and enthuses me just like day one. If I am bored of the world, I can’t make interesting work.”
Interesting work, right now at least, is that which draws us to the joyous moments of serendipity in life – like the video work Peas (2003) of peas boiling on the stove as the sound of a preacher from the African pentecostal church opposite his studio serendipitously reaches its crescendo with the water. Or the pleasure in texture – he is illuminated talking about the foam on the waves in La Palma (2015) or the blown-up image of a weed on a patio, the detail of which bursts forth larger than life, the “infinity of detail” almost too much to take in – an exploration of “how much can we know?”.
The Wolfgang he prefers on the opening of his retrospective is not the lens on fashion, nightlife, or celebrity that many know him as but the artist who encourages us to “be playful with our eyes, to see potential, and take different perspectives”, the ultimate message of To Look Without Fear. We can only start to overcome our political crisis by looking at the world anew, it seems to say – with a look that embodies notions of free love, solidarity and humanity that Tillmans has always cared for.