Wolfgang Tillmans, PCR @David Zwirner

JTF (just the facts): A total of 175 photographs covering all of the walls and hallways in the rooms of the galleries at both 525 and 533 19th Street. The prints on view are in various formats: chromogenic, inkjet, laser, as well as offset magazine tear sheets. They are either clipped to the wall unmatted, framed in white wood, or mounted on Dibond aluminum. The groupings are unevenly spread across the walls and hung at different levels. All the works date from 2009 to 2015.

In addition to photographs, the installation includes two ensembles of wooden tables covered with Plexiglas and containing photographs as well as blank sheets of paper. Instrument, a single channel 5 min. 40 sec. video (color, sound) is projected on a split screen in a separate room in the Western gallery. (Installation shots below.)


“The guy must have, like, a million friends.”—conversation overheard at the Wolfgang Tillmans exhibition at David Zwirner

Friendship wasn’t treated seriously by photographers until the later decades of the 20th century. Despite the many notables (from Fox Talbot onward) that have portrayed with affection people in their lives, the historical record is lacking serial documents of chums, pals, kindred spirits, BFFs, soul mates, or just mates. Ordinary folk everywhere kept visual diaries after Kodak encouraged snap-shooting in the 1880s. The millions of images that resulted, though, were viewed mainly by their authors and subjects as scrapbook material for private consumption. Even the books that Brassäi, Robert Capa, and David Douglas Duncan published about their compadre Picasso suggested not what it was like to know a genius over several decades but how photography could be a profitable vehicle for mutual celebrity back scratching.

In the 1970s, as an affect of amateurism became the telltale sign that you were a professional artist, friendship became an unstated concern or the ostensible reason for a lot of new work. Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces depicts road trips with a group of pals (male and female) between 1972 and 1974. Larry Clark and William Eggleston offered glimpses of the louche, at times dangerous crowd they ran around with in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Peter Hujar portrayed the small group of downtown New York artists, many of them gay, who formed his circle of trust.

But not until Nan Goldin, did photographers realize that these complicated attachments could be portrayed with sufficient variety and drama to interest a public far beyond the art world. Years before The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, she had chronicled the daily routines of her Boston chums—fellow photographers Mark Morrisroe and David Armstrong as well as local drag queens. Her move in 1978 to New York, where she and her friends helped to fuel the downtown art and music and party scene, coincided with the media’s discovery of the Lower East Side as the most happening neighborhood in New York during the ‘80s.

Goldin’s photographs reveal a truth that sustains most of us through adolescence and even after coupling up—that one’s loose, fractious, brilliant, idiotic, unpredictable, aggravating group of friends are, for better or worse, one’s family. It’s an insight that forms the plots of countless young adult novels and many adult ones. When a sensitive artist decides to interpret the bonds and antics of friendship, as in On the Road or Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan sagait can become the richest subject imaginable. Is it sexist to point out that it took a woman to intuit that the emotional course of relationships could be the basis for a gripping serial drama and a successful photographic career?

Wolfgang Tillmans, 15 years younger than Goldin, is a discerning heir. He embraced her improvisatory shooting style and, in the seemingly random display of prints in gallery spaces, upped the odds that the end result of winging it could be disastrous chaos. Scattered across walls, his photos can read like the mundane jottings of a globe-trotting adventurer, trivial byproducts of trivial assignments for fashion and music magazines as well as a record of his well-remunerated career as a celebrated artist.

Of course, he isn’t as casual as he appears—like Warhol, the slacker crowd he attracts only serves to magnify his own 24/7 work ethic—and he arranges his work with care and cunning. Uniting his huge, sprawling oeuvre over the last 20 years is the theme of friendship. Almost by osmosis, we gain a vivid sense from his travelogues what it’s like to spend days and nights on the road with him. He invites us to tag along and meet his closest friends and relatives or total strangers, to hang out in crappy hotel rooms and eat crappy food, share the boredom of airports, march in political demonstrations by day and dance in afterhours clubs at night, and to zone out in front of passing scenery on a train or boat in the company of his floating international entourage.

This expansive view of the world and of human relationships is best found in galleries. He is as much curator as photographer. Books don’t convey how he tailors presentations for individual spaces nor can they reproduce the extreme leveling of the usual photographic hierarchy that goes on. For Tillmans, exhibition prints, snapshots, tear sheets, and postcards can have equal rank. The size of paper chosen for printing an image has little or nothing to do with the content of the image itself. Something of no logical importance may be blown up to mural proportions.

His first exhibition at Zwirner resembles the fastidious messes he made for almost 20 years at Andrea Rosen. While the extra square footage—roughly double what he’s had before—allows him more latitude, his installation techniques here haven’t altered much. Simple wooden vitrines loaded with overlapping prints or magazine layouts under Plexi have been a feature of his shows since at least 2010. He has seasoned his image mix with abstract color before and experimented with video, too.

What’s new is the element of self-reflexivity: photos of his photo installations as part of the installation. According to the press release, the title PMR refers to polymerase chain reaction, “a technique in molecular biology of amplifying a DNA molecule,” whereby a whole creature can be reconstructed from one of its parts—a hair or fingernail.

While it’s often a sign of exhaustion when artists resort to telling you how they make their work, deconstructing the conventions of pictorial space, putting a frame around the frame, Tillmans realized early on that the unique seconds of time embedded in any photograph can, when spaced around a room, be used to create dramatic ripples, patterns of moments. As so many historical ages exist together simultaneously and bump into each other—the pre-agricultural, agricultural, industrial, and information ages—we are never post-anything. His photographs of his photographs are another form of this temporal infolding.

Time is a theme in the show—from the overhead shot of a box of pill bottles titled 17 Years Supply, remnants of his own survival from HIV (saved by scientific research in DNA) to the seated portrait of the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer. Taken in 2010 when he was 103, it may be said to represent the idealism and survival of Modernism. His life spanned two World Wars and several military coups. The portrait hangs on the wall amid even smaller photographs and one larger one, a red-stained plate with the husk of an eaten watermelon, once a living thing, too.

We travel across Europe, Asia, North and South America; to islands, deserts, cities; during a May morning and at night on a drive down Sunset Blvd. The tone of the observations runs from the crudely intimate (a close-up from behind of a guy’s hairy balls and ass) and to the sublime (a view from a plane window of cloud fields over the Sea of Japan.)

With maturity, Tillmans also seems more concerned about the quality of his photographs. There are more arresting images here than in any previous shows I can recall: a grappling pair of young men’s arms reaching inside one or the other’s red gym shorts; a front-loading washer extruding a load of clothes like a ruptured intestine; a foamy wave on a black sandy beach in La Palma; and an enormous abstraction of the digital static on a TV screen after the broadcast day is done.

One minor surprise: although many of the photos date from 2015, the only evidence I spotted of the current immigration crisis in Germany was a nighttime view of anti-African graffiti on a structure in Berlin’s Oranienplatz. One major disappointment: the video. Even though Instrument takes advantage of the audio element, the performance by a man in his underwear, his back to us, stepping in place, the sloppy beat of his feet creating the soundtrack, was like a piece of inept Structuralist/Minimalist dance from the ‘70s.

It was a reminder of his first show at Andrea Rosen (in 1994, when she was in Soho) and the druggy, haphazardness that was once his M.O. The British fashion crowd loved the bedraggled cast of characters and his punk attitude toward respectable picture making. It was too heroin chic for me, photography for posers.

I was finally won over by Concorde, his 2003 eulogy for the impractical, beautiful, wasteful and soon-to-be grounded piece of Modernist design. His innocent enthusiasm was unexpected and moving—he took most of the pictures simply by aiming his camera at the sky as the plane passed overhead—and incautious for a Leftist. The project revealed a sensibility more Japanese than German; his acceptance of the broken or fuzzily unresolved nature of things is closer to Rinko Kawauchi and Nobuyashi Araki than to the razor-edged perfectionism of the Düsseldorfers.

Flowing through Tillmans’ pictorial autobiography is an affection for the world and the flawed people in it. While it would be a distortion to call him a photographer who shows how we live now—his perspective is largely Euro-centric and privileged—he’s figured out how to breathe new life into the documentary style by letting tiny inflections of time be the reason for putting images on paper and for trying to make stories from them. There aren’t many artists in any medium whose lives I’m as happy to be regularly updated about.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show vary widely in price, from $8000 for an inket print on paper in an edition of 10 to $120000 for a unique chromogenic print mounted on Dibond aluminum to $150000 for the video Instrument to $1200000 for the installation titled New York Installation PCR (36 chromogenic prints, 12 inkjet prints, 8 tables and 43 sheets of paper.) There are also 20 exhibition prints not for sale. Tillmans’ work is routinely available in the secondary markets; recent prices have generally ranged between roughly $2000 and $157000.

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One comment

  1. Pete /

    Insightful review.

    Tillmans skillful, Friedlander-like 24/7 access-all-areas approach is a treat. Even when he’s being arty’ such as with curved sheets of coloured photo paper it’s somehow pretension-lite, we get a sense his wonderment. What’s more surprising is the uniqueness of what he comes up with. There are millions of committed image-educated observataional photographers out there pointing their cameras at their lives but whereas they fail to find their own sensibility we can recognise a snapshot of a windowsill made by WT.

    I particularly liked RW’s description of “fastidious messes” and the “unresolved nature of things” . Qualities that are somehow emotionally and spiritually engaging.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2024 by Poursuite Editions (here). Softcover, 21 x 29 cm, 144 pages, with 107 black-and-white and color reproductions. Includes an essay by Clément Ghys ... Read on.

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