An almost empty highway, a truck crossing above on an overpass. Two mirrors leaning against a wall, the remains of a party—empty beer bottles, wine glasses, paper cups—strewn around the floor. A sidewalk construction site, marked off by orange mesh and divided into four piles of dirt and ruble by a wood-plank walkway in one direction and subway grates in the other. The back of a head, half shaven, half not. A car headlight, seen in close-up, its refractive lenses transformed into a constellation of transparent triangles set in a continuous curve of red. A pile of clothes, arranged (or fallen) on the floor in a way that evokes both Renaissance paintings of the Virgin Mary’s voluminous cloaks and the smell of the person who recently inhabited those sweatshirts and jackets. An exit door, marked by the requisite sign and push bar, transformed into a site for exhibiting photographs. All of this is on view in the hallowed halls of the Museum of Modern Art right now as part of the exhibition Wolfgang Tillmans: To Look Without Fear, which runs through January 1, 2023. It is a lesson in seeing what you normally do not notice and constructing places, spaces, memories, fears, and desires out of those bits and pieces.
Tillmans is a German photographer based in London. He started taking pictures in Berlin’s club scene in the 1980s, caught the eye of fashion magazines in England, and made a career photographing his friends, their parties, their clothes, and their homes, as well as his own studio and the roads, airways, and alleys he took between those sites. He turned those scenes into images that are all the more beautiful because of their seeming banality. Part of their success is rooted in Tillmans’s classical skill. He can take photographs of a row of tomatoes or peppers sitting on a sill that rival the best still lives (see: Window/Caravaggio), and can trace the lines of beauty across the back of a punk’s head or the hood of an automobile. His portraits are straightforward, yet odd both in their composition and in the frank display of the human body (AA Breakfast). To complete the array of subject matter, he even turns to the process of printing itself, using the chemicals it employs to make abstractions of ink washes in scrims of color sliding through each other in a dance of dripping lines (Ostgut Freischwimmer).
What Tillmans does after that is what makes the work move beyond the realm of that large body of classical photography that has found beauty in the banal. He prints his work in a wide variety of sizes, from thumbnails all the way up to posters that cover multiple square meters of wall space. Some of the images—Headlight (f), the giant image of the headlight, for instance—are produced in a manner that fetishizes the skill not only of the photographer, but also of the printer. Others (like Podium, a beautiful flower portrait that could use as much scale and attention as the headlight) seem raffled off and are presented as snapshots in grids. Tillmans also prints zines and art publications, and produces images for hire; his shot of Frank Ocean on the cover of the singer-songwriter’s Blonde album is certainly his most familiar photograph.
When he is not issuing his art in magazines, he presents the works in exhibitions that he insists on curating down to the last detail. There the wide variety of kinds and sizes of shots breaks down MoMA’s usually placid pace and the hierarchical story museums and galleries like to tell. Instead of highlighting the progression of the artist’s work or the themes it concentrates on, the shows become feasts of peeks and composed pictures, details and grand panoramas, and things you might not want to see (Man Pissing on a Chair) as well as flowers or sensual bodies. The MoMA show is the apotheosis of this way of working. The exhibition and the works of art become intertwined; Tillmans’s art thus includes the pictures, the ways of seeing they embody, and how Tillmans presents them, blurring the boundary between the objects, their representation, and their exhibition. Spread out over almost the complete top floor of the museum, an honor this temple of Modernism accords to only the most favored artists, it makes the point that this celebration of what we usually ignore is at the very heart of what we call art today.
The exhibition is its own critique: By accepting the challenge of being grouped with grand masters from de Kooning to Warhol who have received this treatment before, and then creating a deliberate mess, Tillmans labors hard to frustrate both MoMA’s and our ability to fit his art into that canon. Plastering photographs over exit doors and high and low over the white walls with no seeming logic turns what is usually a grand set of spaces into a kaleidoscope of colors and forms. The artist’s experiments in disco lighting and rave videos, shown in several darkened rooms, make the whole scene seem like a party. All that is missing is some loud music and the smell of cigarettes.
Tillmans way of looking at a wide variety of objects and spaces and presenting his work breaks down more than the white walls and canons that help set the scene for Modern art. They reveal a world that is there, but that we rarely focus on, even if we would gain from noticing it. In art and architecture both, Tillmans challenges our focus. We usually think of architecture as being concerned with serving and housing activities, and the discipline has developed a clear sense of how to organize those social relations. There is a hierarchy of what is important, whether in terms of subject matter and function (a church is more significant than an office building, and the lobby of that office building is more worthy of attention than its bathroom) and what materials and forms we therefore use. How these come together in spatial sequences and relations then cinches the spaces we design into what we might call architecture.
But, what if a bunched-up hoodie or a flatbed scanner is more beautiful than a marble column? What if an aerial view of factories (Desert) and a close-up of a flower pinned up next to each other reveal a more complex urban organization that jump-cuts in scale and subject in the way we have learned to as we inhabit an image-saturated, social media-connected reality? What if what we see in Lüneburg (self)—which captures an iPhone propped up against a bottle of water on a hospital bed side table, its face showing a fragment of the bed itself with a figure shrouded by a blanket—is a more effective memento mori than the kind of monument that is supposed to be at the core of architecture?
Wolfgang Tillmans has the uncanny ability to make anything and everything if not gorgeous, certainly not only worth looking at, but, as the title of show indicates, looking at without fear—fear that what we are seeing is not meant to be seen, is ugly or disturbing, reveals our trepidations or desires, or is merely what we think of as not being worthy of our attention and therefore an embarrassing waste of time. What if there is, if you look without fear, a whole world out there, already beautiful in its own way? A world that does not need us to organize or streamline it, serve it, or make it appropriate, but that we merely need to see?
All architecture is a seeing of the world we inhabit, an understanding of that reality, and a remaking of what we have seen and known into scenes we can inhabit. To Look Without Fear goes further in that act than either the building that contains it or the vast majority of contemporary buildings designed by architects who don’t see or know where they are.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.
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