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German artist and photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is a model for modern European art and a defender of human rights. His work has matured from the early days documenting 90’s techno clubs, raves, parades and nightlife, becoming himself an advocate for LGBTQI+ rights, HIV/AIDS public health initiatives, social justice, a voice of anti-Brexit activism and a promoter of solidarity. The honest, friendly, often droll approach of his photography had its breakthrough with the annual Tate Turner Prize in 2000. Two decades later, America has recognised him: To Look Without Fear is his first solo exhibition at MoMA New York (Sep 12, 2022–Jan 1, 2023). Tillmans has experimented with graphic design, video, writing, astrology, and also music (Fragile/XL Recordings). A survey of 35 years’ work to a new audience will travel next to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto and The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art later in 2023.

Tillmans actually had his MoMA debut in the '90s, as one of seven artists featured in New Photography 12 – an interaction of MoMA’s series introducing up-and-coming artists making significant development in photography. Furthermore, in 2006 he exhibited Freedom From The Known at MoMA PS1, and MoMA’s collection has featured some of his work several times. To Look without Fear is a tremendous exhibition occupying eleven rooms at the museum’s sixth floor, it is his largest exhibition to date.

Between 2012-2013 Tillmans held his then largest exhibition at The Contemporary Modern Museum of Stockholm, Sweden, in collaboration with Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf. Exactly a decade after that, The Museum of Modern Art MoMA in New York, repeats the exhibition with the obvious enhancements and new work added by the artist through this period. As a matter of fact, the exhibition will take place at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto between April to October and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from November 2023.

Tillmans studied in London where he had the opportunity to contribute to some A-list media including Interview Magazine, Spex, and i-D. He documented Europride, London and Berlin techno club and nightlife, and he also was commissioned portraying actors and musicians such as Morrissey, Damon Albarn, Phillip Glass, Miss Kittin, Richie Hawtin, John Waters, Kate Moss, and Chloë Sevigny. He pays particular attention to nuances of “pose, expression, and context” (Artbook D.A.P 2022).

Tillmans contracted HIV at the age of 26, his boyfriend the German artist Jochen Klein, died from AIDS in 1997. It is known Tillmans’ respect for life and its vulnerability. To Look Without Fear is perhaps his advice to an American audience, his gentle approach to the mainstream to declare there is nothing to be afraid of, we are different individuals, we are vulnerable, humans are beautiful and there are many great things around us to enjoy their beauty and the harmony in life.

Hence the exhibition thought eleven rooms blended several photographic genres including documentary image, portrait, snapshots, astrology, still life, fine art explorations. Furthermore, the unconventional exhibition’s structure and viewership has his work hanged on the walls in different sizes, collage-like presentation where nothing is framed – perhaps another analogy to blur any boundaries in life – rejecting the usual high-end photography presentation and conveying his own architectural vision of it, connecting images with his own strategy and storytelling, “for re-thinking traditional hierarchies and developing new directions that are foundational to the contemporary art,” as Glenn D. Lowry, The David Rockefeller director at MoMA explains on his foreword to the exhibition.
Room 1 (1986-1992)
The first image we see is a self-portrait of a young Tillmans in the swimming pool. The observing photographer captures random snaps of life amplifying them to beauty. The sense of “amplifying” is quite important for Tillmans, “as an artist, one also has the role of amplifier,” he explained in an interview. While studying at the Arts University Bournemouth in the early '90s, he explored enlarging the details of an image by photocopying it into black and white and obtaining different textures, expanding it into using different materials. Some of this work is from his very first exhibition at Café Gnosa in Hamburg. Raves, ecstasy, sweat, hair, vaginas, nipples, happy faces, this part shows some of his most raw documenting work.

Room 2 (1994-1997)

This part includes some of his first work for i-D and Spex with portraits of the likes of Richie Hawtin, Carl Craig, Philip Glass, Chloe Sevigny, Kate Moss, among snaps from different parts of the world and his acclaimed series of the Concord captured around the airport whereabouts.

Room 3 (1997-2003)

Bottles, cans, clothes… Still life is another important genre in Tillmans’ work. Also very intriguing is to see his fine art work of green streaks and dark threadlike lines in motion. Tillmans called these Intervention Pictures, images created without a camera, but combining photography with darkroom experimentation. This is actually all analog made, the abstract marks were created solely in the dark room, Tillmans does not “digitally move any pixel,” he explains. He exposed a piece of photographic paper using a camera-made negative in an enlarger while simultaneously drawing with a flashlight on the light-sensitive surface.

Room 4 (2002-2003)

This is a room projecting some short films. The humour films one focused on boiling peas, another focused on the classic laser machine moving its mirror in different directions in sync with the electronic music.

Room 5 (1999-2022)

This room gathers excerpts of news and photographs taken from actual papers during this period. Tillmans’s on his Instagram account explains: ”In the mid 1990’s I recognised a new category of news photographs in the papers. Unidentified men doing nothing in particular – except that they were soldiers. Since there is no news content to the pictures I was intrigued why they were so often in the newspapers, only pictures of riot police beating up demonstrators showed militarised men in action – Soldiers - The Nineties (installation V).

Room 6 to 8 (2000-2022)

Tillmans’ Intervention Pictures took its bets with works made in 2003. Room 7 also exhibits his astrology work of Venus transit between 2004-2012 and a solar eclipse. Room 8 is a series of wooden tables to display photocopied print and online media excerpts. This installation is called Truth Study Center. Each table presents a different approach to knowledge, very often through Tillman’s humorous lens. It explores our perception of truth. Room 8 also hosts his recognised Neue Welt (New World) series of images of how the world’s surface is changing composing landscape, still, portraits, and street photography. The last part of the room 8 has some of the most popular images including the headlights, the toucan, the TV reflecting the bad of the hotel room.

Room 9 (1997-2003)

Originally taken for Fantastic Man's series of portraits in 2015, this collaboration with artist Frank Ocean Frank in the shower Tillmans made for the album Blond's cover image. Also the iconic image of sea foam breaking at the shore continues showing Tillmans fascination for the sea, the horizon and the sky.

Room 10

It is a listening room to explore how music influences our understanding of photography.

Room 11 (2009-2022)

The room shows the most recent work and new directions of the artist. “Everything is matter continually renewing itself and transforming from one aggregate state into another (…) I would be disappointed with myself if I ever lost interest in portraiture, we can never be too sure of ourselves, and being open to other human beings in a portrait sitting reminds me of the importance of exactly that,” Tillmans concluded.

Víctor Moreno
Dan Ipp

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