Los Angeles

Wolfgang Tillmans

Seen after Catherine Opie’s retrospective at the Orange County Museum of Art, Wolfgang Tillmans’s midcareer survey at the UCLA Hammer Museum felt like more of the same; both shows came off as rapid-fire trips through the history of photography-as-art that attempted to weave together two distinct lineages—those of the medium and of the individual practitioner—in order to affirm the artists’ accession to canonical status. In Tillmans’s case, however, every last vestige of conventional historiography is gleefully dispatched. The latest and the earliest pictures hang side by side without a break to distinguish one period of production from another. The very model of the photographer’s corpus as one that subdivides into discrete “bodies of work,” still dutifully upheld by Opie, thereby takes on a retrograde quaintness. All of Tillmans’s work is the work: vast and proliferating, yet holistic.

One has to applaud the absolute determination with which Tillmans pulls this feat of unity off. In the postwar years, the pursuit of medium-specificity led photographers to embrace seriality (as seriality was an inherent feature of their chosen apparatus); one might say that the viewer’s gaze was correspondingly “serialized,” or mobilized. This lesson has not been lost on Tillmans, who composes entire shows the way that others might compose a single image, sharply articulating the lights and the darks, attending as much to the negative spaces of the wall as to the positive spaces of the images themselves. These alternate between black-and-white and color; they are variously installed in lines, grids, and salon-style clusters; some are “classically” framed and others are casually taped to the wall; some are miniature and others monumental. We move between a suite of studies of moon-eyed clubgoers (Chemistry Squares, 1992) and massive recent abstractions, as between shot and reverse-shot in film, so that the abstractions appear to represent the revellers’ drug-distorted perceptions. Ostensibly the fruit of a “secret” recipe—they resemble shots of powdered pigment swirled through liquid—these latter works crystallize Tillmans’s debt to the New York School painters, to color-field and allover practitioners, while also nodding toward the subsequent use of such painterly gestures within the psychedelic light shows of Mark Boyle, Bill Ham, and others. The “trippy” gestural curlicues of the imposing it’s only love give it away, 2005, are echoed in an image of sweat-soaked underarm hair from Chemistry Squares, as well as the luxurious eyelashes of one of Tillmans’s boyfriends pictured elsewhere in the show.

But such connections aside, it would be hard to say what exactly Tillmans’s work is “about.” One might argue that, like life itself, it is about many different things, but the problems with this easygoing interpretation become especially apparent when the artist “gets political,” as he attempts to do in the juxtaposition of young-soldier portraits from 1995 and 1996 and a tight grid of “black photographs”—paper exposed to light and then developed, yielding no image—collectively titled For the Victim of Organized Religions, 2006. At once rhetorically insistent and vague, Tillmans’s aestheticism is here shown to be utterly incommensurate with his desire for political relevance. The camera merely skims the surface of things like a flat stone skipping over water. Never sticking around long enough to develop a profound relationship to his subject matter, Tillmans duplicates the dilemma of Michelangelo Antonioni’s protagonist in Blow-Up (1966), who divides his time between “committed” social documentary and fashion shoots, while chasing ever more frantically what Henri Cartier-Bresson famously termed “the decisive moment.” Obviously, Tillmans’s success hinges on the fact that he “captures it” more often than not—“it” being precisely the moment when the world takes on the appearance of art photography. But this, too, is a rather old-fashioned pursuit.

Jan Tumlir