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Friday, December 21, 2012

Wolfgang Tillmans

Stockholm’s Moderna Museet reminds me of the way museums used to be: small, light filled, un-crowded. The polar opposite, in fact, to the glitzy mall-like experiences one gets at a place like MoMA. When I was there, there were two excellent exhibitions: a joint show on Picasso and Duchamp and a solo exhibit of photographer, Wolfgang Tillmans.

I was unfamiliar with Tillmans, whose range of work is quite staggering, each room boasted a completely different direction: astrophotography, portraits, still-lifes, color abstracts. On a superficial level, one might have been tempted to surmise they were the work of several different artists. But the sleek prints shared a common technical discipline that made it clear they were by the same hand.

Tillmans favors a nonhierarchical arrangement with different sized unframed photographs, from different series (both black and white and color) pinned or taped to the walls, together with inkjet prints and postcards and magazine clippings of his own images. It sounds like a hodgepodge, but it isn’t thanks largely to the elegant restraint of Tillmans’s aesthetic. In fact, the jumble adds a bit of relief to what might be a little too perfect and refined.

It is interesting to note that Tillman approaches each exhibition as a site-specific installation—a large composition of which the individual photographs are parts.

Looking at Tillmans’s arresting portraits, it’s hard not to think of Catherine Opie and Nan Goldin. But Tillmans's have an immediacy and realness (although many are staged) that is all his own. (While Opie, is also an amazing technician, her work is more theatrical. To me, Goldin’s work has always been first and foremost about the titillating subject matter. Formal concerns? Not so much.) Some of Tillmans’s images are quite graphic, but the strength of his ability lifts them out of the realm of the gratuitous into the realm of art.

I also loved his car headlights and his sublime color abstracts that stemmed from mistakes and his own in-depth experimentation. Produced in the darkroom without a camera, they showcase Tillmans’s interest in the chemistry of photography and are just delectable. Some even push the photographic envelope entering into the realms of drawing and sculpture.

Tillmans, who is German, divides his time between Berlin and London, which he first visited as an exchange student in 1983. He went on to study at the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in southern England, and is the only photographer (and non-Brit) to win the Turner Prize. Perhaps most admirable though, is in 2006 he opened the non-profit Between Bridges exhibition space in the ground floor of his London studio specifically to exhibit political art from artists who he believes have been overlooked.

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