PRINT February 2001


"I THINK THAT THE BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENT, in a way, is to be of your time, because you cannot program timelessness,” Wolfgang Tillmans told the Art Newspaper shortly before he won Britain’s Turner Prize three months ago. “I was never afraid of being contemporary.” From the moment his deceptively effortless photographs first began appearing in i-D, in the early ’90s, the 32-year-old, German-born, London-based Tillmans has been the very model of the cool yet engaged contemporary artist, with an appetite for visual stimulation so voracious it gobbles up everything from Kate Moss to armed soldiers, from rave kids to the Concorde in flight. Though not the first artist whose work is just as allusive and assured on a gallery wall as it is on the printed page, Tillmans is particularly adept at keeping his art pop. “I use magazines as an extended exhibition space,” he says, and his project for Artforum, while echoing the Tate’s Turner Prize exhibition and his current show at the Andrea Rosen Gallery in New York, is a typically disarming juxtaposition of the earthy and the ethereal. More than any particular stylistic approach, this juxtaposition is his signature; Tillmans installs his work the way teenagers decorate their bedrooms, scattering unframed photos across the wall, mixing huge and tiny, color and black-and-white images, each one commenting on and (in his word) “activating” the others. “The installation is like half my work,” he says on the phone from London. “I’m spending ten percent of my time taking pictures and ninety percent dealing with the materiality of them—with books, postcards, shows. The work only half starts with the pictures.”

As if to escape the expectation of subject matter, those pictures have become increasingly abstract. The stained white T-shirt and tossed-off trousers in his previous shows, with their promise of sex and intimation of loss, have evolved into deliberate darkroom manipulations inspired, in part, by the collection of printing mistakes he turned into a 1998 “edition” of sixty unique photos for Parkett. “Like everything in my work, they’re a mix of intention and accident,” he notes. Many of these new pieces also mix representation and abstraction, like the nighttime view of Las Vegas here that erupts in slashing, gestural squiggles. Others, made without a camera or lens, use his medium’s most basic tools to orchestrate bursts of light on paper—swipes of powdery color he calls “blushes.” Without severing his ties to the very real world—the empty Manhattan supermarket, the crowded windowsill, the neatly wrapped package of books—Tillmans seems determined to follow these abstractions deeper into the purely photographic and to bring us with him. “People can’t really think about pictures as objects,” he says. “They’re still only a representation of what’s on them. The myriad formal choices that a photographer makes are always taken for granted or overlooked. I’m trying to go against this thinking that photos can only be accessed via their subject matter. I think about the same questions that a painter would about the problems of representation. I just found that photographs are the language that I speak best in.”

Vince Aletti