Wolfgang Tillmans’s third exhibition in New York is his best. He’s moving beyond one of the more ubiquitous aesthetics of the 1990s, one he helped establish: the anything-young-is-good school of photography, an outgrowth of the apotheosis-of-the-snapshot genre, as practiced most recently by Nan Goldin, Jack Pierson, and the late Mark Morrisroe. In their wake, Tillmans and a host of other international photographers left the messy beds and hotel rooms behind to portray young ravers, DJs, punks, and club kids hanging out or doing nothing so long as they were doing it together, out in the open, and preferably in cool clothes. But Tillmans added something of his own.
As a photographer, the German-born Tillmans is, in Charles Baudelaire’s famous phrase, a “painter of modern life.” His infinitely controlled, casual-looking pictures of people, pets, fashion models, cast-off clothes, and rock bands capture a floating, fleeting world, doomed to pass, but for us eternal. His medium is unimportant. He could be a painter or a filmmaker. Really, he is a novelist who tells tales of what it is like to be alive right here, right now, and this feels wonderful. If Tillmans had a slogan it would be Everything Matters. At 30, his eye has always been savvy and sharp, but his soul now feels old.
Here, in work culled mostly from his latest book, his vision has deepened and his life feels harder. Scattered throughout the room are images of his lover, the painter Jochen Klein, who died of AIDS last year. You don’t have to know this to pick up the heaven/hell worldview that Tillmans posits, but it helps explain the installation’s cosmic feel.
The way Tillmans has distributed his photographs throughout the vaulting Andrea Rosen space is breathtaking. Pictures, which are hung salon-style in groups, grids, alone, or close to the floor, come in all shapes and sizes, and the subjects are even more varied. The installation opens up into something like a walk-in magazine spread. One of the first works to catch your eye is an enormous black-and-white picture, high on the central wall, of a cathedral nave, shot from above. As your vision is caught in the uplift, you notice a smaller image above it, almost out of sight. Set against a pure white background is a wrinkled pair of pants. Beautifully blue, they look like a paint stroke or a hovering angel, a swirling waif spirit ascending to heaven.
When you look again at the photographs in the human strata below, you realize the 150 images in this show are all of a piece, sending invisible vectors across the room and building complicated narratives of life and loss. The first photograph inside the gallery is hung lowest to the floor. It is a poignant self-portrait of the artist alone, backlit, sitting against the window of his studio in London. The view outside speaks of a lost future, the stuff strewn on the floor of an interrupted life. Tillmans turns his back on his beloved adopted city, rendering himself an empty shade. This must be Tillmans at his nadir.
Opposite and perpendicular is a Death of Marat–like image of Klein in a bathtub. It’s not morbid or sexy; he’s not emaciated but quite still. Because Tillmans has isolated this large photo, and hung it low, it has nothing to play off of. Yet it begins to resonate. Directly behind you are those empty pants. Just to the right and below them is a picture you may have missed. It is an image that might trigger memories: two male hands clasp across a blanket. There is a pulse-taking device with a wire attached to one finger. And you know what you didn’t want to know: hospitals, sickness, and fear. In between these two pictures is a ray of hope, an angel of mercy in the guise of Kate Moss, who here sheds her frosty facade for a welcoming, redemptive smile. She wears a see-through Alexander McQueen blouse over an elegant white bra. A single red ruby adorns her hair. Nearby and below the assumption of the pants is the Brit band Pulp, serving as celestial choir.
Tillmans knows, as we all do by now, that we live in an empire of signs, where every image is itself and a metaphor, where every picture tells two stories: what the artist does knowingly or unknowingly, and what it sets off in the viewer. Every plate of food, every rat running into a sewer stands in for something else. Meaning is never fixed in a Tillmans, which is thrilling. He merely sets up a matrix where complexity can breed. But that complexity is undermined when he uses the same pictures over and over again; repetition not only breaks the rhythm, it gets boring.
Tillmans’s pictures love being together, they hate being alone. In a way, they’re like we are right now: happier in groups, pairs, or out in the world. So much is happening, so fast, Tillmans seems to say, that it would be a waste if it had to happen alone. Who cares about a lone picture of a couple of kids or a soldier on a train? But in this context, the soldier can also be a guardian.
Tillmans is often compared to Goldin, but their concurrent shows suggest they are going in opposite directions. He’s moving deeper into visual and narrative ensemble. She’s a romantic who’s struggling to retrieve her great subject—the thread of suffering and beauty that gave her work weight and continuity. What was unconventional about Goldin was her life. Her latest images are autonomous, all the works are hung in a row, and nearly all are the same size. The mood of each work feels predictable and mannered. She’s best when she speaks in the first person, when everyone is in her private movie.
Tillmans’s is a world of we. His people are more public and artificial; he worships at the altar of the lightness-of-being. If Goldin’s model is Warhol as the center of a scene, then Tillmans is like one of the Factory hangers-on who musters enough will to make art. Goldin’s retrospective was titled “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” Tillmans’s most recent book is titled Burg. This is a telling difference. Mirrors are about the loop of narcissism. Burgs are open, alive, ever-changing, and public. They go beyond tribes and expand the self; they are the stage and the backdrop of our lives. We are all people of the Burg.
It’s always good to bear in mind that while Baudelaire’s essay is well-known, Constantin Guys—the artist about whom it was written—is all but forgotten. Tillmans hopes to be remembered, and this show suggests he has a good shot at it.