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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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