“Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear,” on view at MoMA, Reimagines the Traditional Museum Retrospective

Wolfgang Tillmans’s highly anticipated MoMA retrospective is overwhelming in the best possible way.

Curator Roxana Marcoci has collaborated with Tillmans to create a labyrinthine arrangement that builds on his earlier gallery shows. It is far removed from a traditional or even a chronological presentation of work. Over 400 images of various sizes, some as small as 4×6”, are arranged dynamically on each wall, creating a kinetic ebb and flow. A handful of the photos are framed, many are affixed with binder clips, and many others are held up with Scotch tape. Long tables fill several rooms with yet more works to explore. Every space in the 6th floor galleries is fair game—even the emergency exit doors.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear at The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Aaron M. Cohen

Tillmans’s work spans different genres, both straightforward and conceptual, and includes magazine tearsheets, photocopies, video projections, cameraless works, and appropriated images. Each wall, each room is a meticulously organized explosion of imagery and an immersive experience. Compared to more traditional, linear layouts, it’s dynamic, playful, and innovative. The experience of viewing the work is almost as memorable as the work itself.

At the press preview, Marcoci described each wall as a musical partition with different rhythms and intensities, each constituting a “perfect pop song.” That’s an apt metaphor, given Tillmans’s musicality. To extend it slightly, the entire show could be construed as a concept album. Individual pieces combine to create variations on themes as the works simultaneously echo off of and segue into each other.

Even in the rarified air of the fine art world, Tillmans’s work feel immediate, accessible, and direct. As a photographer, he has the power to conjure emotions difficult to put in words. He also endows in viewers a sense of not just connection but also belonging.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at The Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Emile Askey

In his most successful images, Tillmans effectively harnesses the language of vernacular photos and builds on that foundation to add layers of meaning and emotion. Take, for instance, his borderline-iconic photograph of two young men kissing outside of a gay nightclub, caught in the flash. The image is at once provocative and celebratory. It’s a sexually charged picture with a social conscience that’s intimate and inclusive. It’s practically a visceral experience, and the more you look, the more you feel like you’re a part of the moment.

The Cock (kiss) (2002). Photo: Wolfgang Tillmans

Viewing Tillmans’s work in MoMA, it’s tempting to make a connection to William Eggleston’s groundbreaking 1976 exhibition there. To be sure, Tillmans’s work constitutes a democratic forest of sorts in a number of ways. The two photographers also share an uncanny ability to harness the vernacular language of photography in order to cut to the heart of something profound. Additionally, for much of his career, Tillmans, like Eggleston, preferred 35mm over medium- and large-format cameras, steering clear of the type of ornate equipment that typically signifies the “serious” art photographer. Tillmans shoots mainly with a digital SLR these days.

One of his strongest works, “Lüneburg (self),” is a digital image made during the early days of the quarantine. At first glance, it might come across as mundane, but there’s a great deal going on beneath the surface.

For starters, there’s a playful quality to the image. One’s eye is drawn to the accidental phallic-ness of the iPhone/water bottle arrangement before noticing Tillman’s face in the phone app’s tiny frame, engulfed by his digital camera lens. There is also an unsettling quality as well as a profound sense of isolation and disconnect. Nobody is on the other end of the video chat. Instead the screen radiates back empty bedcovers. There’s an institutional feel to the surroundings, as if taken from a hospital bed. Nevertheless, there is also a sense of anticipation and the hope that somebody will appear.

Lüneburg (self) (2020). Photo: Wolfgang Tillmans

“There’s more that connects us than divides us,” Tillmans sings on the opening track to his 2021 album Moon in Earthlight. His work in general—and his bold, honest, and intimate pictures of gay life in particular—emphasize human connection and the value of personal relationships. While there is a strong component of social awareness and political idealism permeating his images, they rarely come across as polemical. Rather, they are empathetic, humane, and sincere.

I highly recommend walking through the entire exhibit twice. You’ll be amazed at just how much you overlooked the first time around.

Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, September 12 2022 through Jan 1 2023.

((2 revisions & 3 end P’s))

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