Wolfgang Tillmans


Selected Press

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The European Union Is Under Threat. Artists Say It’s Time to Rebrand.

With populist politicians across the Continent attacking the European Union and negotiations underway for Britain to leave the bloc, the very idea of a unified Europe seems to be under threat. Some artists feel the union needs to rethink its public image and refine its communications strategy to combat these attacks. In other words: to rebrand Europe.

The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has teamed up with a friend, the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, to encourage artists and other creative people to brainstorm ways for Europe to better present itself to the public.

They put out a call in March for rebranding proposals, asking: “How can the European Union be valued by its citizens and be recognized as a force for good, rather than as a faceless bureaucracy?” They requested ideas “for communicating the advantages of cooperation and friendship amongst people and nations.”

More than 400 proposals from 43 countries poured in. A German fashion designer had an idea for a unisex jacket that would serve as a ticket for public transportation in all 28 member states. A dance troupe with members from Albania, France and Italy proposed filming folk dances at European historical sites that could then be broadcast or viewed with virtual reality goggles. A musician from Hungary proposed a new anthem, and dozens of artists sent sketches for new European Union flags and designs for new euro bills and coins. Several proposals suggested the bloc needed to develop a new sense of humor.

Starting Thursday, about 30 of those who submitted the liveliest ideas will participate in Eurolab, a four-day event led by Mr. Tillmans, Mr. Koolhaas and the architectural historian Stephan Petermann during the Forum on European Culture in Amsterdam. Yoeri Albrecht, one of the forum’s organizers, described Eurolab as “a kind of jam session for the greatest cultural thinkers in Europe to tinker and work with the idea of Europe.”

The ultimate goal of the session “is not about a happy, clappy symbol, song or gesture” to sum up the benefits of a united Europe, Mr. Tillmans said. “It is about coming to a deeper understanding of how this misinformation around the E.U. works and how can we counter nationalism.”

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“Music Has Always Been with Me”: Wolfgang Tillmans on His Latest Single and Musical Career

Wolfgang Tillmans has been very busy lately. A survey of his work has just opened at the Carré d’Art museum in Nîmes, France, and two solo shows, in two different continents, just closed last week: one in Hong Kong, at the recently inaugurated David Zwirner gallery in H Queen’s Central, and one in Nairobi, Kenya. Which is, of course, expected from the Turner Prize-winning photographer.

However, for the last two years Tillmans has also been working in a different kind of studio and exploring a somewhat unexpected medium: electronic music. His latest single, “Source,” is out now on vinyl, and available to download or stream, under his own label “Fragile,” with remixes by the legendary German electronic music producer Roman Flügel.

Tillmans’s career as a music producer is more of a return to an original passion, rather than an artistic reinvention. In 1985, two years before he bought his first camera, Tillmans started experimenting with music, which he probably would’ve pursued if it weren’t for fate: “My collaborator Bert [Leßman] left town and I never found the courage to find another. Then I discovered my visual side and began making work with a black and white photocopier. Somehow that took over,” he told me over the phone.

Music has always been present in the artist’s visual work: from his early days documenting club culture in Berlin and London, to spaces that he dedicated entirely to sounds, such as exhibitions at his nonprofit gallery in Berlin and at Tate Modern’s South Tank. But it wasn’t until almost 30 years later that his desire for making music would resurface in a gradual process that started taking form in 2014, when he worked on a video called “Instrument.” “It was a split screen where I’m dancing, playing and making noises with my steps, which creates the rhythm to which I dance to. I manipulated the stepping noises into electronic sound, sort of me being my own instrument.” Through “Instrument” he also met the music producer Tim Knapp, with whom he’s still working today. “It was such a lucky coincidence [to have met]; our studios were literally on the same street. I took him the cassette recordings I’d made in 1986, digitized them and we tried to restore them as well as possible. He replayed the instruments and layered them under the original recording. Those are the songs on my first release, 2016/1986 EP,” which came out in the summer of 2016.  

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Totality of Experience: Interview with Wolfgang Tillmans

An iconic photographer of the past three decades, Wolfgang Tillmans remains an innovator, fueled by his expansive curiosity and engagement with the worlds of science and environmentalism, politics and culture, fashion and art. He has even returned to making music after a nearly 30-year hiatus with the release of an EP, 2016 / 1986, in 2016, and live concerts with his band Fragile. A solo show by Tillmans opened at David Zwirner Hong Kong in late March, and was an occasion for the photographer to make an exhibition in a city that he was revisiting for the first time since 1993. Additionally, Tillmans debuted several large-scale landscape images, of the sea and the Sahara desert, and portraits of figures that reflected not only his recent travels but the conversations he has been having about the state of the world today. I spoke with the photographer ten days after the exhibition’s opening about his approach to presenting works, his process, as well as solar eclipses.

For your exhibition at David Zwirner Hong Kong, and for the accompanying catalog, you introduced new and recent images alongside specific older images, from either a few years ago or even several decades ago. What is your approach to making an exhibition? Do you bring a lot of photographs with you and edit and arrange them while you’re in the space? Or do you have a very specific idea of which works you will show and how they relate to one another?

I start by building an architectural model of the exhibition space in my studio about a month before the exhibition and use that for my thinking process. The model is not prescriptive—it’s not a plan that has to be stuck to. It’s actually there to allow me the freedom to do whatever I want in the gallery. But of course I can only play with the work that I have shipped. Over the years, the layout of the works in the model has become so precise that I now sometimes follow it exactly on the gallery walls. Other parts of the exhibition are completely done on the spot and are developed over several days. 

It’s an organic process that took the better part of a week in Hong Kong. I worked during the day and late into the night until everything found its place. Each picture has a sound in my imagination. The smallest images and the biggest ones are not so different in their importance. They hang together, and when it’s done I never feel, “Oh, I wish I could change this now.” It’s kind of then settled and good.

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Although his photographs had graced the pages of magazines like iD and Interview magazine, for a couple of decades it was at nightclub Berghain’s Panorama Bar in Berlin that the work of Wolfgang Tillmans really seared itself on my mind. The work in question, Phillip III (1993), depicted a man exposing his anus with his hand. The Panorama Bar, known for its hedonism, where music, dance and sex dissolve into one another and clubbers can party the night away with complete abandon and without judgement, was the perfect venue for his work. What struck me wasn’t that the work was confrontational or provocative—Robert Mapplethorpe paved the way for works of this nature in the late 1970s and 80s, drawing the sting from homoerotic art. Instead it was the unapologetic directness of the work, the raw honesty and frankness of it, that impressed me most. Throughout his three-decade career photographing a diversity of subjects, Tillmans’ has demonstrated a commitment to exploring and depicting truth, blurring the boundaries between art and documentary photography.

Music and clubbing have been central to Tillmans’ work from the outset of his career. After picking up his first camera at the age of 20, it was in documenting the late 80s and 90s club counter-culture that he rose to recognition. Back then, the young photographer was merely taking pictures of friends in Hamburg in a scene that they were part of; the dancefloor was where he felt the biggest energy. But his subjective photographs also captured and arguably defined an era, reflecting the spirit of the times and influencing a generation of other young photographers in his wake. They were celebratory works expressing togetherness and the ideal of a utopia that was infused in club culture of the 80s and 90s.

 "Where other people maybe saw just pictures of partying and hedonism, I saw body studies, and pictures of trance and ecstasy in an art-historical context of hundreds of years of painting: moments of ecstasy and revelry and revelation," he says by phone from his Berlin studio; he has divided his time between London and Berlin since 2007. "So this interest in almost something spiritual and the everyday is really at the foundation of my work."

It’s hard to define Tillmans’ style. He has moved fluidly between genres, including portraiture, street shots, studio shots, still lifes, urban scenes, close-ups of mundane details and abstract photos. Everything and anything can be a photograph, as he suggested with the title of his 2003 Tate Britain retrospective, If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters. His photographs look almost offhand, so casual that they skim the surface. He captures scenes that look like they have been noticed in passing, but that are familiar and universal, accessible to all who look at them. Tillmans is not one for dramatic or grand gestures; it is the quiet moments that he brings into focus, freezing and capturing time, conveying intensity or lending beauty to the otherwise overlooked. His photographs are striking for their normality, stripped of harsh lighting or affected poses, printed without the aid of cropping or Photoshop, so taken for granted in photography today.

"I want people who see my work to trust that what landed on the film is what’s in the picture," he says. The idea of truth in photography, so anathema to our post-truth era when photographs are manipulated, doctored and filtered, crops up several times in our conversation. Yes, photographs can lie – but, says Tillmans, "I think photographs are so genuinely true to their intentions, true to the mind behind the camera. Photography always depicts the intentions behind a photograph."

Tillmans’ intention is to depict "what it feels like to be alive today", frank and unfiltered. Viewers see life through the eyes of the artist: his friends, places he’s visited, the remains of a party, a box of bottles of HIV medication. In choosing what to photograph and how to photograph it, he reveals his interests, what he sees and the way he sees it, creating an intimacy between viewer, subject and photographer.

 "But I don’t see my work as a diary or a window into my life; it’s more a window through my eyes," he says, dismissing the common misconception that his work is diaristic. Through this window he reframes as beautiful and poetic the mundane, the discarded and scenes taken for granted.

There is an understated sensuality to some of Tillmans’ work, especially his still lifes, which pay attention to the smallest of details; although they can look casual, there is a studied formalism informed by a rich visual language and by art history. A pair of crumpled, discarded jeans draped over a bannister (grey jeans over stair post, 1991) seem to still radiate the warmth of the body they were just peeled from, the folds and draping of the composition evocative of a baroque painting. astro crusto a (2012) is an intensely detailed, vivid high-resolution photo of freshly peeled crab shell with a single fly feasting on the remains, with every hair and texture of carapace and claw in sharp focus; hinting at decay, it references Dutch still life painting. In Water Melon Still Life (2012), a large slice of watermelon rind sits underneath a plate stained with red juice like a blot of blood; erotic and fleshy, it conjures up memories of summer heat, tanned fingers and bare arms dripping sticky juice. We might be living in an era of image saturation, when anyone with a smartphone can claim to be a photographer, and images are consumed and discarded at an unprecedented pace, but Tillmans’ images are evidence of the enduring transformative power of photography – of a photograph’s ability to not just convey a narrative but to also engage the senses and imagination.

His idiosyncratic installation style and singular take on the world around him have captured the attention of art institutions internationally, with solo shows at venues including New York’s MoMA PS1, Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof and recently London’s Tate Modern, as well as winning him the Turner Prize in 2000: the first photographic artist and the first non-British artist to do so. The 2017 Tate exhibition rejected institutional norms: photos in various sizes, framed and unframed, were tacked, taped or hung on the walls of 14 rooms in seemingly random ensembles, like a forensic study of lives, with no single photo being accorded more importance than others.

This March Tillmans will follow up the exhibition on a smaller scale at Zwirner Gallery in Hong Kong. His first show in the city, it will similarly bring together a collection of works across all genres from his three-decade career, including depictions of public and private spaces, natural landscapes, portraits, abstract photos, folded sheets of photographic paper that look like sculptural sheets of metal, and new abstract and text pictures that emerged from Tillmans’ exploration and study of the brain and how it deals with deception and truth. "And pictures of Hong Kong that I took in 1993 and this year, so 25 years in between," he says. “Photographs of the Macau-China border taken in 1993 and pictures of the Hong Kong-China border in 2018. I have an interest in borders”. 

Indeed, that preoccupation has become something of a recurring theme in his work and private life lately. As much as Tillmans has made his career from photographing moments culled from ordinary life, his work has also recently acquired a sense of political urgency. He is a vocal—and visual—backer of the anti-Brexit campaign and staunch EU supporter, and engages with issues such as climate change, gay rights and migration. He created a series of posters available for home printing for the Remain campaign, including an aerial photograph of a coastline bearing the John Donne quote "No man is an island. No country by itself" that became a Remain campaign slogan. The personal is political and vice versa for Tillmans, who feels a sense of responsibility to address and engage with social and political causes through his art.

"I have joy making work, but the main reason why I do what I do is because I want to be involved in society, and I find that political and social and cultural activism has allowed me freedom to live my life, be it as a gay person, as a liberal person or as a spiritually non-aligned person," he says. "All these freedoms have been fought for by generations of other people; they have not come through indifference."

The idea of inclusiveness, the spirit of togetherness that he has expressed from his earliest club photos, is extended to his political and personal values. "You can have fun and be interested in the beautiful and in a night of abandonment in a nightclub, and in formal, aesthetic things. But it’s not a contradiction to also feel you have a sense of responsibility to protect what has been fought for by generations of anti-authoritarian people before us.  Because one thing that is clear is that all progress in society can be reversed."

Tillmans uses the camera lens as a magnifying glass, encouraging us to look closer, to pay attention to details, to the world around us, to the personal and the political – and to find the poetic in the everyday.

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Wolfgang Tillmans Explores the Role of Art in a Post-Truth World

LONDON—The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has had a decades-long love affair with printed media. Since making his name in the 1990s taking pictures of night life in Hamburg, Germany, for the British counterculture magazine i-D, his work has appeared in countless publications—from fashion titles to newspaper supplements—as well as in galleries and museums. Mr. Tillmans has long been concerned with how his work appears on the printed page.

The artist, the first photographer to win the Turner Prize, in 2000, had a large, midcareer retrospective at Tate Modern in London last year. Titled Wolfgang Tillmans: 2017, the exhibition delved into the photographer’s longstanding interest in the representation of truth in media and politics.

Mr. Tillmans’s latest project put him in the editor’s chair. He is the guest editor of Jahresring, a collection of essays about art and culture published annually in Germany since 1954. This year’s edition, What Is Different?, explores the increasing rejection of facts in today’s political and social discourse, with a series of essays and interviews with activists, academics and politicians, interspersed with photographs by Mr. Tillmans.

In an interview, Mr. Tillmans explained why he embarked on the project and spoke about the role of art in a post-truth world. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

The jumping off point for the collection is the theory of the "backfire effect." What is it, and how did you become interested in it?

I started a project for an installation called Truth Study Center in 2005. I juxtaposed texts of great lucidity and awareness with absurd, humorous and also crazy false statements. All of this was, of course, at a time when no one talked about post-truth or fake news. As this became the center of all politics, I realized it is now everywhere, and I don’t need to juxtapose these different claims because they are so out in the open.

I wanted to go further and look at the science behind it. Around 2014, I read about the backfire effect, first described by Brendan Nyhan and his colleagues, which describes what people who believe in a falsehood do when shown a collection of facts that contradict their opinion. It doesn’t shift their opinion to the more truthful or factual, but instead it actually reinforces their belief in the falsehood.

There’s a lot of text in the book, but it’s also an art book. How do you view the relationship between art and politics?

I love that art is useless and that it has no purpose. That makes art so incredibly powerful. And so, I don’t think one should turn to artists instantly and ask, "What are they saying?" I think, really, every private person should take part in democracy, because if you don’t, others choose for you.

I think we all have to ask ourselves if there are people who have nothing else to do but push against our liberal society, who is actually defending it if we are not. If you feel an urgency and you don’t act upon it, then that is the whole problem in a nutshell.

In 2016, you produced a series of posters to campaign for Britain to remain in the European Union, ahead of the referendum here. What is your view on what has happened since?

The reason I felt such urgency to rebel against Brexit has, of course, to do with my 28 years living in England and Germany, but also because I really predicted at the time that it will be all about language. It will turn into an ugly blame game, and when the promises of a glorious post-Brexit future do not turn out right, no one will say "Well, maybe we got it wrong."

Even though I’m not campaigning in the U.K. anymore, I really think anything that could stop Brexit is a good thing. Even though it would be seen as anti-democratic, I think the pain and the antagonism in language and the sentiments of this divorce is more harmful.

What were you most surprised by when putting together this collection?

I learned how, for the last 50 years or so in the Western world, authoritarian people have been kept widely at bay. They have had to accept feminist, nonracist and L.G.B.T. progress, social justice, international cooperation and anti-nationalism. They had to accept all of that, and things in society changed for the better so dramatically because individuals believed in it and spoke up for it. So one should see it this way around: Trump being in power and Brexit succeeding is not the reason for despair, but it is really a backlash to 50 years of civil rights and liberal progress.

What conversations do you hope the work will provoke?

An opening up to uncomfortable questions about oneself. On the second-to-last page is a collage text piece with a sentence written on it: "How likely is it that only I am right in this matter?" This sense of humility, I think, is the precondition for positive change because without humility, it’s so easy to lose perspective. The moment I say this, alarm bells go off in my head; I should not even talk about humility in a confident way because that isn’t humble.

What then is the role of art is in a post-truth world?

We call it that, "post-truth," but we should call it "lies"—an era where some people are not ashamed to openly lie for their own ends.

I do believe that the true nature of things comes out, and that’s why intentions in art are always revealed in the work. If artists are interested in their fellow humans and in this society, that will also come out in the work. I guess this interest is also called solidarity. Again, I don’t feel like artists should particularly be singled out, but we all need to question if we show enough solidarity with our fellow humans.

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Wolfgang Tillmans

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.

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Wolfgang Tillmans Takes Pictures of Modern Life, Backlit by the Past

The photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is a material guy. He has always embraced the physicality of photos. As a boy in Remscheid, a small city in western Germany, he photocopied printed images and bought his first camera so he could obtain more material for the copy machine. Achieving prominence in the early 1990s, when his pictures of Hamburg night life were published in i-D, a British periodical known for its cutting-edge design, he prized his work not as it existed in its original form but as it appeared laid out in the magazine.

Abrupt contrasts, confusing superimpositions—the magazine presented life as he knew it. In a new show at the David Zwirner Gallery in Chelsea, and in a 40-minute slide show, "Book for Architects," on view through Nov. 1 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mr. Tillmans, 47, displays the alternately bewitching and stupefying contemporary world—from a nighttime view of the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood to the end-of-broadcast static on a television screen.

In his quest to portray modern life, Mr. Tillmans harks back to an earlier century, to the voracious ambition of the artist Gustave Courbet (1819-77). The Zwirner show includes a wide array of subjects that recapitulate Courbet's scope: still-lifes, seascapes, landscapes, portraits, group scenes, and—most startling—a large and lovingly detailed photograph of a man’s buttocks and scrotum, the gay man’s version of "The Origin of the World," Courbet’s notorious and exquisitely brushed painting of a woman’s groin. "It's innocent," Mr. Tillmans insisted. "The scandal is in the brain." Yet the angle and cropping of his image, as with Courbet's, leave little doubt about what was buzzing in the artist's brain.

"One must be of one's time" was the rallying cry for progressive French painters in the 19th century. That is Mr. Tillmans's aim, too. "My starting position was, I wanted to make contemporary pictures, to make art that makes you feel what it's like to be alive today," he said. In his youth, he admired the paintings of Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke that relied on silk-screened photographic images. "They painted on photographs, or they printed photographs on canvas," he said. "They made contemporary paintings then. I realize, to make contemporary painting now, I don't need to transfer them onto canvas."

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Review: Wolfgang Tillmans, a Photographer Showing His Life as an Open Book

Wolfgang Tillmans may be moving toward total transparency in his life and his photography. He is at least trying to get the most out of both.

These are two of the big ideas to be extracted from Mr. Tillmans's enveloping debut exhibition at David Zwirner's gallery in Chelsea through Oct. 24. It is hardly his first gallery solo show in New York. That occurred in 1994 at the Andrea Rosen Gallery, where he had subsequent exhibitions.

But this show is Mr. Tillmans's first with Mr. Zwirner's high-octane multinational gallery, and it brims with ambition. It takes advantage of the gallery's big side-by-side spaces, without being overbearing, or making us wonder how much it cost. (Unlike, say, the Mike Kelley extravaganza one block away at Hauser & Wirth.) It is unusually personal, even for an autobiographical artist, and details what Mr. Tillmans's work has always implied: Photography has no limits.

The show is titled "PCR," an abbreviation for "polymerase chain reaction," in molecular biology the technique that finds and multiplies tiny fragments of DNA and is used by crime labs everywhere. This multitudinous metaphor reaffirms that today every photographic image can not only be dispersed everywhere, and be seen by anyone. It can also spur people to take more photographs, creating networks of experiences, feelings and ideas that connect people. This show is one such network.

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