Wolfgang Tillmans: How likely is it that only I am right in this matter? @David Zwirner

JTF (just the facts): A total of 78 photographic, video, and sound works, variously framed/unframed, and displayed against white walls in a series of 3 main gallery spaces and their connecting hallways, with separate darkened rooms for the video and sound works.

The following works are included in the show:

  • 15 inkjet prints on paper, some clipped directly to the wall, others mounted on Dibond aluminum in artist’s frames, 2014, 2018, sized roughly 81×54 (or reverse), 84×57 (or reverse), 82×54, 82×55 (or reverse), 90×64, 92×66, 64×96, 98×66, 108×162 inches, in editions of 1+1AP
  • 20 chromogenic prints, some in artist’s frames, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018, sized roughly 9×8, 14×18 (or reverse) inches, unique
  • 18 chromogenic prints, 2013, 2016, 2017, 2018, sized 16×12 (or reverse) inches, unique
  • 7 inkjet prints on paper, 2015, 2016, 2018, sized 16×12 inches, in editions of 10+1AP
  • 14 inkjet prints on paper mounted on Dibond aluminum in artist’s frames, 2015, 2017, 2018, sized roughly 23×28, 25×32, 27×35, 27×37, 30×39, 35×28 inches, in editions of 3+1AP
  • 1 chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum in artist’s frame, 2017, sized roughly 94×71 inches, in an edition of 1+1AP
  • 1 photocopy, 2018, sized roughly 12×17 inches, unique
  • 1 three-channel video, 2018, 9:40, color, sound, unique
  • 1 sound installation, 2018, 8:14

(Installation shots and video stills below.)

Comments/Context: Tucked in one of the connecting hallways between the galleries at Wolfgang Tillmans’ expansive new show at David Zwirner is a humble looking photocopy work entitled Klaus. It’s basically the printout of a reverse email trail, tracking a conversation between the artist and this mysterious Klaus. The exchange starts out with a simple business solicitation from China, an unknown company approaching Tillmans offering printing and publishing services. Most of us would disregard such an email, thinking that it might be either spam, a scam, or just a distraction that couldn’t possibly lead anywhere useful. But Tillmans improbably responds, wondering what this communication actually is, and ends up discovering that “Klaus” is really Zhanghan, a recent-graduate hire at the publishing company, who is blasting out pitches to random email addresses, hoping to dredge up some new business and having no understanding of who Tillmans is. The two proceed to strike up a short conversation about photography.

As I stood in the hallway reading this unlikely back and forth, I had to wonder – who does things like this, actually taking the time to respond in good faith to what appears to be random Chinese spam? But in the context of the many artworks scattered across the handful of rooms around me, the answer was clear – a confident and curious guy like Wolfgang Tillmans, who is acutely interested in the surfaces and details of the contemporary world and who isn’t afraid to be caught looking and asking questions.

Tillmans has built his career around this kind of sensitive attention to the marginalized, the overlooked, and the swiftly changing, but the undercurrents of youth culture, gender, sexuality, politics, and globalization that have been at the forefront of his work for the past several decades are decidedly more muted in this new batch of work, pushing his precise eye for specificity to the forefront. Again and again, this show comes back to the central premise of deliberate, inquisitive looking, where the intensity of Tillmans’ personal attention gives each subject a sense of newness.

While Tillmans’ distinctive installation approach readily mixes different kinds (and sizes) of pictures into a layered symphony of visual ideas, if we pull back from the interleaved rhythms and empty spaces he has so meticulously arranged, the photographs themselves fall into several neat groups.

The first thematic bunch is thoroughly engaged in the examination of textures, regardless of scale. Tillmans looks at the surface of broken ice crystals, the mechanisms of a taxi door hinge, the parallels between rebar and plant forms in a garden landscape, and the aerial textures of the Nile valley. He examines the tiny bumps of human skin and the sleek machined blankness of smartphones without displays. He shows us the rounded forms of eggs on a windowsill and LED light bulbs in a display and the patterns of Sahara dunes and Congo water surfaces, and compares light coming through wooden shutters and the semi-transparent drapery of plastic greenhouse sheeting. He seems to see the grandeur of textures everywhere, from fabrics in Guangzhou and mud splattered on a window to rumpled sheets and clothing in his bedroom and chunky ice in his freezer.

These formal observations are given a more expressionistic twist a series of new images (entitled Philharmonie Bloch) that multiply the source pictures out into layers of copies and echoes. Eggs, fragmented male bodies, drapery, dead insects, and stacks of paper are mixed together, and then iteratively remixed and repeated, using collaging and interleaving effects and distortions. These works seem to have a musicality that connects back to Tillmans’ interest in composition and djing, where ideas (visual in this case) are introduced and then reworked and manipulated into more complex themes and variations.

Tillmans’ portraits are a second major group of work in this show, and they are the most consistently forgettable. It’s not that Tillmans isn’t an attentive portraitist – he is, and his images of artists, actors, musicians, activists, and refugee camp workers are made in a way that highlights an authentic one-to-one interaction with his sitters. It’s just that these photographs are so understated in their framing and arrangement (nearly always a centered person looking square into the camera, aside from one gently turned back), that even when their honesty is engaging, it’s hard to find more to discover than just this straightforward vision.

The final group of pictures on view finds Tillmans consciously moving away from the camera, making impressionistic abstracts with chemicals, paper, and various darkroom processors and machines. Aside from one large, wall-filling work punctuated by bulging chemical impressions, most of these pictures are intimately sized, where the subtleties of color and texture can only be seen with close observation. Mists of color give way to spots and scrubs from rollers, with studies of moody green, soft magenta, and wispy blue drawing us in tight. Other works have more inistent striping and regular patterns of vertical or horizontal lines, a few opting for boldness instead of nuance with dramatic zips and slashes across the frame. Here Tillmans can experiment with form and surface without the limits of representation, the process giving his curiosity an alternate path for exploration than the one his voracious eye takes in the outside world.

He also extends this movement beyond the purely photographic in new video and sound works. With the video, Tillmans leverages his mastery of photographic thinking and seeing, using fixed camera positions that watch as steel rods at a construction site bang together (accompanied by glorious metallic clanging sounds), a telescope rotates at an observatory (matched by Tillmans’ own electronic tune with the repeated line “It’s Completely Changed”), and construction cranes install diamond shaped glass panels on a skyscraper in London (aurally decorated with ambient birdsongs, airplanes, and tinkling repetitions). In the sound installation, a male voice delivers a monologue of questions about the nature of technology, full of brainstorming, reconsidering, and stream of consciousness connections to the implications and consequences of increased computing power, smartphones, and other innovations. While both of these works (the video and the sound installation) are fundamentally different than Tillmans’ usual forays in photography, they feel like thoroughly logical extensions of his central artistic thought process – he’s just using different mediums to probe the same mysteries.

While this show is physically large and contains many disparate works, it feels intricately balanced and controlled, the themes interlaced with sophistication and maturity. Tillmans’ synthesis of his ideas is impressively intellectual, his textures and surfaces forcing us to think, respond, and connect in ways far more complex than these kinds of pictures normally encourage. He’s found a way to get beyond decoration, to use these luscious observations as a bridge to the nested sets of cultural and social questions that have occupied him for most of his career.

Age seems to be catalyzing a crystallization of Tillmans’ broader artistic vision, almost as if he is managing his seeing with more direction and concentration as he gets older. An approach that once felt haphazard or overwhelming in its cacophonous diversity has now evolved into something more roundly three dimensional, like a set of layered motifs being followed in precise harmony. It is this conscious aggregation and construction that left me most impressed by this show, as it says Tillmans is operating at a level of thinking much more far reaching than instinctive improvisational shooting.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $10000 and $250000, based on size. Tillmans’ work is routinely available in the secondary markets, and top end prices (particularly for his abstract images) have risen sharply in the past several years; recent prices have generally ranged between roughly $2000 and $795000.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Void Publishing (here). Open spine softcover (16,8 x 24 cm), 168 pages, with 106 color photographs. In an edition of 350 copies. ... Read on.

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