Sunday, May 13, 2007
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.