Wolfgang Tillmans, Paying Attention
By Michael O'Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 22, 2007; Page WE53
The last thing you're likely to see on your way out of "Wolfgang Tillmans," a touring retrospective on the 38-year-old German contemporary photographer at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is a photograph called "You're Not Paying Attention." Lifted from the slogan on an American flag decal shot by the artist, it could be taken as the show's rallying cry.
It's a message that could therefore more properly have been delivered at the beginning of the show, rather than at the end. If a viewer can make it all the way through the show -- idiosyncratically installed by the artist throughout 10 galleries on the museum's second floor -- without having changed the way he or she looks at these photographs, maybe even photography in general, there's little hope that Tillmans's parting shot is going to get through. Through the course of the show itself, on the other hand, the artist does his damnedest to subvert (or at least question) the very way we pay attention to pictures.
Let's start with the way Tillmans presents his photos, some of which have been printed no larger than the snapshots whose offhand, unstudied aesthetic many of his images ape. Others have been blown up to the size of bedsheets. Contrary to what you might expect, there is no aesthetic hierarchy here. Bigger does not necessarily equal better, or even more important. Some of Tillmans's most visually striking photographs (e.g., "Man With Clouds") are the size of postcards. Other wall-size images (such as "Ostgut Freischwimmer," one of several abstractions created by the deliberate manipulation of the photographic process) can call to mind accidents resulting from a camera with a light leak. A few pictures are formally framed. Most have been casually affixed to the wall with tape.
Several, such as "Faltenwurf (blau)," have been hung so high that they're almost impossible to see. Don't worry that you're missing something major, though. This one -- part of a series whose title, roughly translated, refers to the drape of fabric -- is apparently a pile of crumpled clothing. A couple of pictures, stuck waist-high to the inside of a door frame between two galleries almost as an afterthought, could easily be overlooked by the unobservant.
If I wasn't paying attention when I got here, I am now. But to what?
It's as if Tillmans is testing us in a way, dropping unidentified images into his "Truth Study Center" (a room filled with crudely fashioned tables supporting a hodgepodge of issues-oriented pictures and text, some found, some made), and then hanging some of those images -- properly titled -- later in the show. Does any of this look familiar?, he seems to ask us in a game of visual gotcha, playfully (or not) driving home the fact that some of his most banal imagery -- the unfinished pylons, for instance, of "Macau Bridge" -- can linger in our minds longer than the mentions of the Holocaust, homelessness, war and world hunger found in "Study Center."
Many of Tillmans's best-known photographs are those of his young, counterculture friends, but he also has an eye for the urban landscape, beautifully capturing leaves and plastic bags trapped against a chain-link fence in "After Storm." Don't get used to beauty, though, he reminds us. The artist himself undermines it every chance he can, celebrating the seedy in his "rat on trash bags," even as he perversely decides to print some of his "best" images so small that they lose all aesthetic punch.
That's because Tillmans isn't ultimately as interested in the retinal as he is in the cerebral. Like photographer Hiroshi Sugimoto, himself the subject of a retrospective at the Hirshhorn last year, Tillmans is a conceptualist at heart, taking pictures that make us think about picture taking -- and picture looking -- more than about the thing in the picture. An entire gallery features photographs of photographic paper, along with a 3-by-16-row grid offering nothing but glossy midnight blue and jet black color prints.
Called "Memorial for the Victims of Organized Religions" and meant to evoke the difficulty in distinguishing one form of so-called truth from another, the installation's payoff involves the head, or maybe even the gut, more than the eye.
Like Sugimoto, whose most arresting images consisted of almost detail-less seascapes, Tillmans sometimes takes pictures of seeming nothingness. Unlike Sugimoto, though, there's little that could be called transcendent in the work of Tillmans.
He's pretty easy to like, if you like your art prickly and full of ideas. But he's almost impossible to love.
Artist Deftly Controls His Seemingly Unruly Works
By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 13, 2007; Page N01
Wolfgang Tillmans, one of today's most influential contemporary artists, takes snapshot-style pictures of his slackest techno-party pals, but he also shoots impressive images of piles of gold bullion.
He takes almost-abstract photographs of blank sheets of photo paper as they curl back onto themselves on his studio floor. He also presents pared-down abstract sculptures made from sheets of photographic paper, colored and folded. He enlarges pictures found in newspapers until they fill a wall, and reduces his own most famous photographs until they're postcard size. And then he assembles all these absurdly varied kinds of pictures and objects -- some framed as precious works of art and others stuck up with pins or Scotch tape -- into an installation that crawls up and down and all across the gallery walls.
At the Hirshhorn Museum, where a touring show that is Tillmans's first U.S. retrospective opened Thursday, the result is stunning. And it's compelling just because it's so perplexing.
Tillmans's individual pictures are often notable. But what's most impressive is the way they come together into a larger, more substantial whole. It's hard to put your finger on what makes Tillmans's totality so strong. But equally hard, I think, to resist its pull.
Being hard to pin down is part of what gives Tillmans's art so much traction. Most works of art present us with self-contained little worlds that seem sufficient to themselves. The 400 or so images Tillmans gives us at the Hirshhorn seem to open out to a wider world, capturing some of that sense that the lives we live are more open-ended than art is.
That's something that artists have always struggled to capture. And every time they succeed, they also fail. Every time that art seems to evoke life "just as it is" (such a tempting goal, because art can come so frustratingly close to life), it also sets itself up as merely the latest flashy artistic move.
Tillmans has worked harder than most to make his art feel as if it's plucked straight from reality, maybe because he's more concerned than most with how quickly such effects become just more artistic fluff.
Tillmans's first stab at making art that seemed authentic to the feel of life came early on, with his straight-ahead images of the folk he partied with and loved. He didn't want his art to be about art; he wanted it to be about people. So he used a technique that mimicked a point-and-shoot effect, where who's in the shot seems to matter more than how it's taken. But Tillmans is too good for his own good. Whether he wants to or not, he creates piles of striking pictures that viewers can't resist.
"Adam, Red Eye," near the beginning of this show, finds an echo of its subject's flash-induced red pupils in the bright red lockers behind him. That makes its "casual" moment seem as decisive as anything by Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose famous photos tried to catch the instants in the passing flux when accidents cohere into arresting images.
Ditto for Tillmans's shot of his late partner, Jochen Klein, taking a bath in 1997: The apparent accidents of its composition, with a houseplant dead center and its subject and his bathtub barely in the shot, become a perfect, and perfectly compelling, image of what accidents look like. "Empire (Punk)," a hugely enlarged photo of a lousy snapshot sent by fax, captures all the random artifacts of its transmission. This ought to make it about as casual as anything can be -- but instead it seems like an artistic distillation of casualness itself.
Or maybe Tillmans was simply the victim of his own success, like all those dedicated realists before him. An approach that seemed either not concerned at all with beauty, or even opposed to it, came to be one of the dominant aesthetics of our time. It was copied in fashion shoots and advertising throughout the 1990s.
Ever since the Tillmans mode became a fashionable photographic style, his career has seemed to be about finding constantly new ways to achieve his earlier effects -- to somehow be a guy just doing stuff, rather than an artiste striving to engender Art. The seemingly chaotic sprawl of his images across the gallery wall, and the apparent accidents of how he frames and hangs them, all speak to that ambition. They all signal that Tillmans doesn't have a settled goal in what he does; he just goes with the flow.
In an installation called the "Truth Study Center," Tillmans fills a gallery with 23 knocked-together wooden tables. He then covers their tops with masses of news clippings and assorted photographs, some by him and others found, some clearly meant to look good and others resolutely not. The accumulated imagery seems to come straight from Tillmans's stream of consciousness, as he contemplates all the objects and issues that have impinged on him. (One unusually spare table in the Hirshhorn version of this installation hosts nothing more than the pages of an article published barely three weeks ago by Naomi Wolf, titled "Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps.")
Another striking piece at the Hirshhorn, with a somewhat similar dynamic, is called the "Concorde Grid." It consists of 56 photos of that historic supersonic jet, barely glimpsed as it takes off and lands above the scrappy landscapes that surround your average airport. The unruly feel of its images seems to capture the "lifelike" encounter between an insignificant onlooker and an iconic object as they meet by accident within the haphazard flow of time.
But every time Tillmans seems to be doing one thing -- becoming, that is, an artist with a trademark strategy for making art -- he veers off in another direction.
He seems like somebody who avoids allegory and classic symbolizing, right? And then he makes a piece called "Memorial for the Victims of Organized Religions," which consists of 48 sheets of photo paper, in elegiac shades of black and midnight blue, arranged in a grid on a wall. They're like photographs of what it is to shut your eyes, or to focus on a starless night, in mourning for the evil deeds religion has inspired. So a work that seems at first glance to be art at its most formal and abstract -- like the Ellsworth Kelly color patches at the National Gallery, but without the color -- turns out to have the closest ties to issues the artist cares deeply about.
Maybe Tillmans's steadfast contrariness, his determined indeterminacy -- like the sheer, meaning-defeating quantity of information he provides -- are all part of his attempt to make an artwork that evokes life. That is, taken as a single work, the Hirshhorn's Tillmans exhibition provides a living, mutating, dynamic portrait of the man who made it, in the act of making it. Its shifts, twists, refusals and perplexities provide a faithful record of the shifts and twists and refusals and perplexities that any life is built around, but that most any art will have a tendency to iron out, just because of almost any art's inherent order.
That includes the art of Wolfgang Tillmans.
Even disorder can become an ordering principle; it takes effort and ambition to achieve randomness. Look at the wooden tables in Tillmans's "Truth Study Center": Their inconsequential look is achieved through very careful carpentry. The lifelike energy in Tillmans's agglomerations of images is achieved through very deliberate labor; the dimensions and components of each museum installation are recorded with a tape measure before a show comes down, so it can be re-created in any part of it that is bought.
The Hirshhorn installation is much closer to a carefully considered magazine layout meant to capture a chaotic, energetic feel -- Tillmans was famous early on for his design of magazine spreads of his own art -- than to an actual tipped-out box of old photos.
The true surprise of the Hirshhorn exhibition isn't its disorder; it's how fine it looks. That's not how I felt the first time I saw a similar Tillmans installation. I was sure that it was about a compelling exploration of ugliness and the truly haphazard. But now Tillmans has taught me better.
He's taught me that, all along, his work has simply had the trademark look of the latest captivating art -- or of what captivating art has come to look like, since he came on the scene.
Photos With a Sharp Edge
By Lavanya Ramanathan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 10, 2007; Page C13
The giant and fabulous retrospective of German-born photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, opening today at the Hirshhorn, strikes us as an exciting show in particular for this town's young artists, musicians and scenesters. It has all the elements that we thrive on: It's bright, cheeky and unapologetically obsessed with youth culture, but it's also Very Serious About Art as it showcases Tillmans's vision for abstraction.
Tillmans is under 40. His name and career have been forged only in the past 12 years or so, after he moved to London, jumped headfirst into the club scene (capturing its heady nights on film) and did a few spreads for British fashion mags.
He cites Gerhard Richter as one major influence -- and Boy George as the other. His images of club kids and friends have the sweaty exuberance of very naughty youth. But other works -- neon-scratched abstractions, newspaper clippings, experiments with color and photos of photo paper -- strive for something more. Grouped in "clusters," they link disparate worlds and feel like a look inside a restless mind (not unlike your own?).
Tillmans carefully weighs each mounting of the show and makes changes from venue to venue; his clusters often stay the same, but a photo that was large in Chicago might end up postcard size in Washington. Here, you'll find yourself tricked by photos hung so high you can't get a good look. And then there's the absence of any kind of chronology.
Tonight, Tillmans visits the Hirshhorn at 7 for a talk about the exhibition and the role that photographs play in relaying the world. And although tickets aren't distributed till 6:15, come before 5 to check out the exhibit, organized by Los Angeles's Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago.