Wolfgang Tillmans

Selected works from the past four years have been brought together for Wolfgang Tillmans’s exhibition “Aufsicht”/“View from Above,” traveling to four venues across Europe. In Hamburg a group of earlier works was added, perhaps in honor of the artist’s onetime residence here. But the emphasis was on his most recent abstractions—works that play with light or that are actually drawn with traces of light. Great quantities of work from the series “Blushes,” 2000, “Conquistador,” 2000, and “Mental Pictures,” 2000–2001, filled the walls. Tillmans’s typical way of repeating motifs in varying formats and arrangements while scattering widely disparate types of imagery across the same wall reminds us not to be too quick to file this artist under any single label. Here we have a photographer who keeps a visual diary, one who lets himself be caught up in unforeseeable events, one who philosophizes about “das Nichts” (“nothingness”) with images of crusted snow or finds still lifes in random objects glimpsed on tables and window sills. And one who finds his way by detours: “Mistakes have always played a significant role in all of my works. One might even say that it is always from mistakes that progress comes.”

Tillmans also lets chance dictate his abstractions. The optics of their motifs can best be compared to crystals of potassium permanganate sinking in water (the small dark-violet masses trail a light-violet-to-pink swath behind them when dissolved in liquid). Some works produce the form of an exploding firework, and one is reminiscent of an elbow with its hairy and hairless patches (Elbow, 2001); another, strands of muscles. Light drawing would be a good term for this form of photography.

The multitude of Tillmans’s themes reflects his preference for surfaces and their manifold appearances. “In opposition to the idea that the surface is just ‘superficial,’” Tillmans favors the correspondence between surface and “the actual nature of an object.” The dichotomy between being and seeming is replaced by the idea of an essential appearance. This may be the source of the genuinely unpretentious aspect that Tillmans grants the surfaces of things. Strikingly, there is no working out of underlying structures, and likewise, no emphasis on contrasts. Many of the motifs evoke the impression of a pattern more than some dramaturgy that might underlie them. Regardless of whether Tillmans is inspired in the series “Aufsichten”/“Views from Above” by a bird’s-eye view of a playground, a city at night, or the interior life of a museum, what is important is the insight into the social fabric from which contents and patterns of behavior crystallize.

Situated between the abstract and the concrete are the portraits taken in the London underground. These derive their titles from the names of routes, such as Circle Line, Central Line, or Piccadilly Line, all 2000. They present tightly cropped views of subway passengers, reflecting the sanctioned closeness and intimacy of anonymous people within an extremely limited space. Armpits gape, legs cross each other, hands wrap around a pole from all directions in a kind of counterpoint. This emotionless proximity of closely pressed bodies is a theater of clothed and unclothed body parts whose lead roles are played unwittingly by people en passant.

Wolf Jahn

Translated from German by Sara Ogger.