Reviewed by Heather Mathews (Department of Art, Pacific Lutheran University)
Published on H-German (July, 2007)
The Complexity of the Subject
This volume accompanied the first major U.S. retrospective of the artist Wolfgang Tillmans, a collaborative effort in 2006-07 between the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. The catalog provides valuable contextualization of Tillmans's work, identifying relevant historical influences and, in turn, suggesting the artist's impact on contemporary art and in visual culture more broadly.
Perhaps because Tillmans has not received sufficient critical attention in the United States, a number of the contributors take a defensive approach, most notably by attempting to counter the widespread misconception that Tillmans is a fashion photographer. Although his style at times evokes the glossy photo shoots of fashion magazines, the influence runs instead in the opposite direction. Aspects of Tillmans's artistic practice, including his frequent focus on youth culture and his radical formal approach, which can include awkward, staged poses, too much or too little lighting, and unbalanced focus, have been absorbed by the fashion industry. This distinction is critical to the overall message of the catalog which seeks to preserve the radical quality of Tillman's practice and save it from being co-opted by mainstream consumer culture.
Tillmans has said that he is "interested not in individual readings, but in constructing networks of images and meanings capable of reflecting the complexity of the subject" (p. 75). His varied photography is best understood, then, not as a body of independent pictures but as a wide-ranging, ongoing project, one best communicated in the installation format of his exhibitions, which he arranges himself, and in image collections published in magazines and books. Taken together, the six essays in the catalog do a good job of providing a glimpse into this complex creative method. Daniel Birnbaum, Russell Ferguson, and Julie Ault explore the specifics of Tillmans's formal approach, Dominic Molon and Lane Relyea place the photographer historically, and Mark Wigley relates Tillmans to contemporary photographic practice. The generous illustrations, which include entire photographs, details, and installation shots, round out this analysis. Significantly, the weight and slight gloss of the paper on which the catalog is printed help approximate the experience of seeing the photographs in the original.
Daniel Birnbaum notes that two primary themes prevail in Tillmans's work: "the alchemy of light and the interest in our being-in-the-world with others and his own wish to relate to these others" (p. 24). Birnbaum sees the artist's abstractions, experiments with light and photographic chemistry, as evocative explorations positioned between his more concrete photography of portraiture, landscape, and still life. Birnbaum addresses the political goals of Tillmans's subject matter and formal approaches, arguing that the artist's embeddedness in his subjects, the varied youth subcultures of metropolitan centers in Europe and the United States, provides his artwork with immediacy and authenticity. The artist seeks to "channel attention to the multilayeredness of personality and identity" (p. 20), presenting not the ready-for-market personae of the fashion world, but instead the diversity of existence present within these subcultures.
In his discussion of Tillmans's connections to photoconceptualism, Dominic Molon places the artist among a group of younger photographers concerned with "emotionalism, passionate identity-based politics, and/or romantic pictorialism" (p. 36). Among the aspects of Tillmans's practice indicative of his reliance on older conceptualist methods, Molon cites his frequent use of inkjet prints mounted with binder clips, publication of images in magazines, and "administrative visual techniques" (p. 37), which include presentation in series or multiples and forms of exhibition familiar from institutional settings, such as display vitrines. The artist's control of the installation of his work is an equally significant characteristic. Through the overall composition of works in an exhibition space, he determines the resonance of images against one another, as well as the final effect of the body of work on the viewer.
Russell Ferguson examines Tillmans's portraiture, which has remained a constant interest throughout his career. Tillmans photographs "people that I love in some way, that I want to embrace" (p. 66). These subjects radiate from the artist in rings of familiarity, from intimate friends and acquaintances, to public figures, to individuals in anonymous crowd scenes. Ferguson argues that Tillmans's portraits hover between public and private representations of his subjects, but that the artist always locates his subjects within their specific milieu. An important observation made by the author here is that Tillmans's portraits often appear to fluctuate between staged tableaus and found situations. The oscillation between theatricality and documentary quality is a hallmark of Tillmans's photographs.
Next to Tillmans's tangibly emotional and immediate portraiture, the artist's abstract work can seem a surprising departure. Lane Relyea's discussion of Tillmans's abstract series situates those photographs within the rest of the artist's work as well as within the modernist narrative of abstraction. Relyea sees Tillmans's abstraction as medium-specific (in the tradition of mid-twentieth-century formalism), but in a way which is "expansive rather than reductive" (p. 97). Perhaps most significantly, this is because the abstractions are nearly always seen in conjunction with the rest of Tillmans's work, in the context of his self-composed installations. Thus his experiments with photographic chemicals, with the effects and after-effects of the developing process, have to be seen by the viewer in dialogue with portraits, still lifes, and other subjects. Relyea notes, though, that when the artist prints abstract works such as his Freischwimmer series at large scale, they resemble the color-field painting of the twentieth century, emphasizing quality of line, depth of tone, and even the texture of the paper as elements.
Julie Ault focuses on the dynamic relationships between the photograph, the viewer, and the space of the gallery created by Tillmans in his installations. Ault argues that the artist's extension of his authority beyond the darkroom and into the exhibition space "dislodges any clear-cut boundary between curator and artist" (p. 121). Tillmans chooses what will be shown and how, and edits that content as he goes based on relationships that arise during installation. He creates an animated visual environment by combining genres and by displaying the same photograph multiple times, in different places, at various scales. Recently the artist has integrated questions of status and physical presence in his exhibitions by including framed photographs among the more informally mounted binder-clipped prints. Ault, like other writers in this volume, cites Tillmans's youthful fascination with astronomy as an influence in this cosmic approach to display and she classifies this strategy as explicitly political in its freeing effect on viewing practices within the gallery space.
In the final catalog essay, Mark Wigley addresses all of Tillmans's photography as it relates to a basic characteristic of the medium, "the ability to stop things" (p. 149). Wigley examines the stillness of the artist's compositions and concludes that a common theme among his varied work might be the construction of space, the evocation of a type of architecture on the flat plane of the print. Like Ferguson, Wigley asserts that Tillmans's compositions fluctuate between found and composed. He concludes that in the end, the photographs are best understood as documents of the photographer's being-in-the-world.
This catalog is a useful theoretical introduction to the work of Wolfgang Tillmans, not least because the thoughtful essays are supported extensively by reproductions of the artist's work. The authors' repeated insistence on the artist's distance from fashion photography is distracting at times. This insistence is unnecessary, either as proof of the political nature of Tillmans's practice or as a claim about the beauty of the images. Overall, however, the essays offer an evocative representation of the artist's career so far.
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Heather Mathews. Review of et al, Julie Ault; Birnbaum, Daniel; Ferguson, Russell;, Wolfgang Tillmans.
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