The Disappearing World of Wolfgang Tillmans

It doesn’t seem like a titillating photograph: an orderly queue of Germans, waiting to enter a nondescript industrial site. It is dark. Just a single light illuminates the door. What does it look like? Like a color remake of Depression-era imagery: the factory entrance, the bread line.

But the men in single file — they are all men — are at this factory not to work but to play. This old train shed in the former East Berlin has been reborn as Snax, a raunchy gay nightclub, and that light in the darkness is the gateway to pleasure. It’s 2001 now, the wall is a memory. The world is flat, we are young and proud. We got here on a train, there are no more border controls, or maybe we got here on a cheap new airline called easyJet.

We are ready to dance, and to do other things in the dark. The party will go on well past sunrise. It feels like it might go on forever.

“Outside Snax Club” (2001) is one little star in a constellation of photographs by Wolfgang Tillmans at the Museum of Modern Art: one node in a life’s network of tender portraits, straightforward still lifes and streaky abstractions. The sky from a window seat. A boy’s feet in tube socks. An apple tree in the London morning, a kiss stolen in the London night. The German photographer has been taking these deceptively natural pictures since 1986, and linking them in exhibitions and books that absorb different modes of photography into idiosyncratic associations. These have made Tillmans (especially to gay audiences) not just a renowned artist, but someone we feel we know personally. He is just “Wolfgang,” even to many who have never met him; his photos are intimacy enough.

“Wolfgang Tillmans: To Look Without Fear,” which opens to museum members this weekend and to the public Monday, is one of the most anticipated exhibitions of the year; actually, it’s been anticipated longer than that. Roxana Marcoci, a MoMA senior curator, has been working since 2014 on this tremendous, pandemic-detained overview, the largest of Tillmans’s career. It rambles across the museum’s sixth floor, vacant for more than a year and a half. It includes 417 works (mostly photographs, though there are a few minor videos) displayed, as always with Tillmans, in asymmetric arrays of large and small prints. He affixes the majority to the wall with Scotch tape or bulldog clips — although, as with the soft lighting and easy cropping of his photography, the ostensibly “informal” hang is actually calculated to the quarter-inch.

The show is candid, unaffected, breezily intelligent; moralistic, too, in the later galleries. It is required viewing for both photography scholars and sportswear fetishists, and a worthy retrospective of one of the most significant artists to emerge at the end of the last century. (The show will tour next year to Toronto and San Francisco.)

It is also — in a way I was not prepared for — one of the saddest museum exhibitions I have ever attended. It is a show of friends lost, of technologies abandoned, of cities grown insular, of principles forsaken. It maps, over 35 years, the ascent of a photographer to the height of his profession, and then the disintegration of almost everything he loved, the art form of photography not least among them.

We follow the fragile peace of the ’90s into a century of war, extremism, post-truth and privation. We follow the artist through the last days of the darkroom and the rise of digital cameras, which he adopted with only moderate success. A sunset in Puerto Rico, a club night in Hackney, the transit of Venus, liquid concrete before it hardens: “To Look Without Fear” confirms that Tillmans has always been a photographer of transience, of things here today and gone tomorrow. Now his two hometowns, Berlin and London, are both facing frigid winters with life-threatening power shortages, and his whole world feels on the cusp of vanishing.

Tillmans was born in 1968 in the industrial heartland of West Germany. He had a childhood love of astronomy, acquiring his first telescope at age 12, and of British pop groups like New Order and Culture Club that inspired a lifelong passion for London. (In 1983, on an exchange program in the British capital, the 14-year-old Tillmans somehow got past the bouncer at the gay nightclub Heaven, but left early to get the last Tube home.)

Photography came more accidentally. On the beach in France one summer, Tillmans aimed a point-and-shoot camera at his flexed knee and silky black Adidas shorts: a first, abstracted self-portrait. That picture is in the first room at MoMA, and one of the funnier leitmotifs of “To Look Without Fear” is the three stripes of the Adidas logo, a queer sportswear fixation that endures even as cities and bodies change. At the show’s entrance we see the 20-year-old Tillmans in a skimpy red Adidas bathing suit. At its exit is a photograph from three decades later of another, crumpled pair of glistening red Adidas shorts: a drapery study, a memento mori.

He moved to Britain for art school but got his break in magazines, shooting raves, festivals, and also fashion editorials. The London indie magazine i-D first published this show’s well-traveled photographs of his friends Lutz and Alex, gripping each other’s androgynous bodies. A giant portrait of the British DJ Smokin’ Jo, her silver sequined dress twinkling in the golden hour, was a commission for Interview. There were new gay magazines like Attitude, for which he photographed Tony Blair, and Butt, which printed his images of half-dressed fashion designers on pink paper, like a not-safe-for-work Financial Times.

He was shooting on 35 mm rather than in large formats; he disdained the tripod, abjured conspicuous lighting. Nan Goldin comes to mind before some of his halcyon ’90s pictures, and she herself appears with two nudes in a 1996 Tillmans idyll: a millennial remake of Manet’s “Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe.” But he’s far less diaristic than Goldin, and a more relevant influence may be the New Objectivity of 1920s Berlin, where painters and photographers like Christian Schad and Otto Dix made a virtue of hard surfaces and louche life.

His partyers are often standing still. His nudes are almost always staged. The same cool, surface-level gaze falls upon the windows of London skyscrapers, the water of pools and oceans, and the great love of his youth, the painter Jochen Klein. Klein appears in two of this show’s largest prints: “Deer Hirsch” (1995), a rare black-and-white photograph of Klein and a young buck, staring wondrously at each other on an empty beach, and “Jochen taking a bath” (1997), shot months before his death from AIDS-related pneumonia. (The memory of that photo haunts a 2015 image of the singer Frank Ocean, another sad young man with closely cropped hair against white tiles.)

What mattered more than the photographer’s subjects was the photographer’s regard. It was applied equally, unobtrusively, across genres — portrait, landscape, nude, still life — and united in the taped-up arrangements he first tried out in 1993. All together, on the gallery wall, the modest photographs could express a new, politically and sexually charged way of being in the world. They were promiscuous: not (or not only) in the word’s libertine sense, but freely mixing, ready to be rearranged, most themselves when with others. They were urban, too, and came to typify a newly vibrant and international London, where the mammoth Tate Modern opened in 2000 and, in the same year, Tillmans became the first non-British laureate of the Turner Prize.

Later, in the 2005 exhibition “Truth Study Center,” Tillmans introduced a new display module that mixed his photographs with newspaper clippings (about war, fundamentalism, and also scientific breakthroughs) on low wooden tables. With these didactic works he meant to resist the absolutes of Bush-Blair rhetoric, but they ended up as preachy show-and-tell displays: a first act in the 21st-century domestication of Tillmans’s youthful freedom. Anyway, by the time of “Truth Study Center,” different and more disruptive photographic arrangements were coming into view on our (desktop) screens. The tacked-up pictures and the carefully laid-out tables would give way to the image-search grid and the social feed. Tillmans’s unframed printouts were becoming atavistic. The independent magazines where he found his voice were on their last legs.

His most powerful response to this century’s explosion of images has been the cameraless “Freischwimmer” abstractions, begun in 2003. So beautiful, these pictures: grand, streaky expanses of color, suggesting bodies or currents, made by exposing photosensitive paper to lasers and other hand-held lights. Yet something began to go sour in the Tillmans method around the time of his adoption of a digital camera in 2008. Large, colorful prints of a Shanghai street or an Argentine shantytown are too crisp, artificially alienated. Recent portraits, such as the Frank Ocean photograph, forsake the soft-focus intimacy of the ’90s for hard-candy sheen. The later party pictures are really dreadful: The black tones have lost all their mystery, the sex appeal has drained, and in a time of ubiquitous cameraphones his no-style style feels redundant.

Absent at MoMA, though discussed in Marcoci’s catalog, is Tillmans’s most widely seen digital endeavor: his posters for the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Made in a season of now justified panic, these balmy images of jet-trail-crossed skies or the cliffs of Dover, overlaid with pleas for apathetic youth to vote Remain, were freely distributed online. “What is lost is lost forever,” read the caption on the most ethereal of these posters, and he wasn’t kidding. With Brexit, the imagery of borders introduced earlier that decade — the concrete walls of Gaza, the customs line at Gatwick — arrived at Tillmans’s doorstep. He thought the lack of artifice, the pictures everyone could read, might inspire people to live together; it turned out he was speaking a language narrower than he’d ever known. A 2021 photo of worn-out maroon passports (the color of all E.U. member states’ travel documents; the Johnson government replaced Britain’s with a blue one) might as well be a grave marker for Tillmans’s London. Some people really did have more freedoms when they were young.

We all age. We all lose things. And yet I don’t blame Tillmans at all for considering, as he tells my colleague Matthew Anderson in this Sunday’s New York Times, that he might take a sabbatical and leave art for electoral politics. The democratic impulse in his photography, manifested through simple commercial lenses and unpretentious printouts, has receded into self-righteousness now, and his collisions of self-portraits, celebrity pictures, handsome sunsets and political slogans — well, how can these retain their force when a hundred million social media profiles do the same? He has reached the end of something, summed up with panache and great melancholy in this important show, and his accomplishment, not unlike E.U. membership, is easier to appreciate once it’s lost. Those late, sweaty ’90s nights: then, we were sure we had met the chronicler of a new millennium’s freedoms. What if Tillmans was instead a harbinger of the artist as entrepreneur of the self, and of how we would all go on posting pictures even as our misfortunes piled up offscreen?

Wolfgang Tillmans: To Look Without Fear

Opens to members Sept. 9 and to the public Sept. 12 through Jan. 1, 2023, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53 Street, Manhattan, (212) 708-9400, moma.org.

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