View of “Wolfgang Tillmans,” 2017, Fondation Beyeler, Basel. Photo: Mark Niedermann.

View of “Wolfgang Tillmans,” 2017, Fondation Beyeler, Basel. Photo: Mark Niedermann.

Wolfgang Tillmans

View of “Wolfgang Tillmans,” 2017, Fondation Beyeler, Basel. Photo: Mark Niedermann.

FOR A PREVIOUS EXHIBITION at the Fondation Beyeler in 2014, Wolfgang Tillmans was invited to pair his own pictures with works from the museum’s collection. The artist showed two large, seemingly abstract landscape-format pieces—Ostgut Freischwimmer, left and Ostgut Freischwimmer, right, both 2004—alongside works by Picasso, Matisse, and Max Ernst. That installation was, in a sense, a precursor to Tillmans’s vast new survey at the same institution: Both asked how and why his practice might respond to an architectonic and institutional setting built on modernist claims for the autonomy of the work of art. If the earlier exhibition allowed him to challenge the individuality of the artwork—and the medium specificity of photography and painting—by setting his pictures in dialogue with those of acclaimed modern masters, the more recent show, by contrast, seeks to address the same challenge through a retrospective of his own work. That its opening coincided with the last day of the Beyeler’s Monet exhibition only underscored how “casual” his presentation is, if at first sight considerably less experimental than his installations at Galerie Buchholz in Berlin in 2016 or Tate Modern in London earlier this year.

The foyer contains three works from different groups and periods, which together function as an introduction to the programmatic ambitions of the exhibition as a whole. In the large photograph unscharfer Rückenakt (Out-of-Focus Nude Back), 1994, the slightly blurred contours of the naked male body possess a painterly quality reminiscent of Gerhard Richter’s works; it is only at second glance that a vulnerability evoking life at the margins of conventional society becomes evident in this image of a kneeling man with dirty feet, who is seen from above and contained in a narrow pictorial space. The small photograph Night Jam, 2013, is a study in color contrast, depicting gently creased strips of variously hued photographic paper arranged on top of a paper guillotine, bringing to mind series such as “Lighter,” 2005–, for which Tillmans turns flat pictures into three-dimensional objects by bending, folding, or creasing photographic prints and exhibiting them in Plexiglas boxes; or the famous “paper drops,” 2001–, for which he takes pictures of photographic paper gently furled into drop-like forms. The third work in this opening ensemble, ceremony, 2007, shows a performance space, presumably a theater. The photograph, a blown-up scan of a black-and-white photocopy of a color photograph, is permeated by a ghostly white. Instead of replicating an image, the process of copying here bleaches out the world. Together, these three pictures create an allegory of photography and how it opens onto the practices of painting, sculpture, and performance.

These attempts to reach beyond photography as such laid the groundwork for Tillmans’s compelling engagement with the exhibition space in what followed. Across twelve rooms, some two hundred photographic images from 1986 to the present are brought together, grouped either by series or loosely by theme. The first rooms speak directly to the museological setting, featuring various genres of European art: portraits, still lifes, landscapes, and drapery studies of articles of clothing casually thrown on top of one another. Tillmans’s portraits in particular stand out; they are direct and intimate, more gifts of friendship than documentary images or records of their subjects. If the artist has become well known for these snapshots of friends, passersby, and acquaintances, here their familiarity and utter singularity are amplified, in stark contrast to, say, Conceptual photography’s use of typology, seriality, and repetition. Tillmans’s is an art of the specific, never the generic.At the same time, however, traditional artistic genres evidently remain viable categories for articulating how individuals, social interactions, spatial settings, and objects offer different perspectives on a singular yet multifaceted world.

In other words, Tillmans’s images are never simply his: They are historically and formally mediated. Let’s look again at one of his portraits, albeit an atypical one: Wilhelm Leibl painting, 2002, is a black-and-white shot of a nineteenth-century oil painting by the eponymous artist, in which a boy sits on a chair looking somewhat anxious, as if he were about to slide off it. Tillmans’s cropped photograph is decentered and includes part of the original picture’s frame, undoing its traditional stabilizing function. Indeed, Tillmans’s own pictures are often bordered by white strips above or below the image, or (sometimes) down just one side. These white bars articulate the transitions between picture and wall, allowing the photographs to stand on their own while at the same time relating them to their architectural support. White is, however, not only a framing or fixing element: It also repeatedly appears as a sign of overexposure, as in the aforementioned ceremony or the early studio photograph o.M., from 1997. Many of the objects Tillmans photographs are also white, and can—like the crumpled T-shirt in Sportflecken (Sport Stains), 1996—be said to refer to the gallery’s white walls.

But Tillmans also uses the wall as a screen for bringing together political images from various times and places inside the contemporary space of the exhibition. With subjects ranging from an LGBT protest in Berlin in 2006 to the US antiracism movement of the past few years, these works include several examples of the political activism for which Tillmans has become widely known since his anti-Brexit poster campaign of 2016. Here, however, the context of the exhibition space again changes their emphasis. Take the picture of the palm of a raised handtitled Black Lives Matter Protest, Union Square, b, 2014, for example. When a detail of this image was reproduced on the cover of Artforum in March of this year, it was clearly a signal of resistance, but on the walls of the Beyeler, it above all tells the viewer to keep his distance, to pause for a moment.

To these pictures, Tillmans has added a small image of a pile of old newspapers (Zeitungsstapel [Pile of Newspapers], 1999). The simultaneity of nonsimultaneous images directs the gaze toward specific historical events, but then draws it away, to the mode of display itself—creating a palpable tension between the pathos of the depicted events and the purity of the white cube. In Silvio (U-Bahn), 1992, a clock at the center of the picture illuminates the scene like a pale moon floating above a landscape from the distant past; the photograph, seemingly bathed in red light, shows the temporary memorial built in a Berlin subway station in 1992 for the victim of a neo-Nazi murder. Tillmans includes this picture twice in the arrangement of images here—in two formats, one larger and one smaller—positioning it so that the strip lights in the underground passageway form a kind of horizon line, thereby changing the relationship of the entire installation to the museum wall.

In 1989, the critic Jean-François Chevrier remarked that the most important issue in regard to photography’s status as art was not to raise the medium to the rank of painting but rather to find a form that can “reactivate a thinking based on fragments, openness, and contradiction, not the utopia of comprehensive or systematic order.” This would mean a more intense experience for the viewer, produced by the aesthetic distance between her and the photographic image (which allows a one-on-one relationship very different from flicking through pictures in books or magazines). Along such lines, Tillmans’s exhibition insists on a particular kind of gaze that the artist has described as “open and fearless.” But while demanding the viewer trace a startling multiplicity of patterns and relationships, this dynamic way of looking is riven by sudden interruptions, moments when Tillmans’s works use the gallery setting itself to confront the viewer as individual images that insist on being considered on their own terms.

Take, for example, Chaos cup, 1997, an unassuming picture of a white cup filled with tea. Here, it is hung between two doorways, one of them connecting two galleries, the other a photographic close-up of an entrance in Schlüssel (Keys), 2002, in which a cluster of keys hangs from a magnet stuck to the lock of an old white door. From a distance, the dark liquid in Chaos cup appears as a black sphere against a white background. On closer inspection, however, the image reveals itself to be dense with meaning: a metaphor for contingency. The tea has apparently been left standing for some time, and a thin membrane has formed on its surface that looks at first like a cracked and fissured section of the earth’s crust photographed from space. Perhaps, though, we can also see a tree reflected in this skin covering the tea, maybe even a face? Or gazing into the vessel might bring to mind the dark cup of coffee in Jean-Luc Godard’s 1967 film Two or Three Things I Know About Her, where the action of stirring sugar into the liquid accompanies the circular course of the dialogue itself, determining its length and cohering into an emblem of the mind dissolving into the world of things. But the porous and reflective surface of the tea also recalls the film, in various senses, through which the photographed world is rendered,which in Tillmans’s work often turns opaque, either completely black or completely white—or even gray, orange, or turquoise, as with the monochrome drips of chemical residue in the “Silver” series, 1998–2015. What these pictures show is something quite different from a “comprehensive order.” They offer instead—as Chevrier puts it—a fragmentary, open-ended worldview given structure through movement and transformation but also by singularity: the unrepeatable power of each picture as a moment of difference.

“Wolfgang Tillmans” is on view through October 1.

Maja Naef is an art critic who teaches in the department of arts, media, philosophy at the Universität Basel.

Translated from German by Nathaniel McBride.

Visit our archive for Wolfgang Tillmans’s cover feature (March 2017), an interview with Michelle Kuo (September 2012), and other articles about the artist’s work.