Many of Wolfgang Tillmans’s photographs begin with the German artist asking himself, “Can I do this?” Last week, at a preview of “PCR,” his new show at David Zwirner, in New York, Tillmans pointed out two new photographs of Sunset Boulevard, in Los Angeles, as examples of that process. One of the images is a night scene that he shot in the passenger seat of a car. In it, a billboard for an exhibition of Rolling Stones photographs bears a slogan that seems to say it all about the show’s interest in what Tillmans called “super ‘now’ moments”: “It’s just a shot away.”
“To take a picture from a car at night should be an impossibility without flash,” Tillmans said at the preview. “In a lot of these pictures, there’s some aspect of new technology. These pictures, for example, would not have been possible ten years ago.”
Tillmans, who was dressed in a T-shirt and shorts cut at the knee, continued, “Most artists are afraid of getting out of fashion. They try to predict what will stay good forever, but it’s impossible. You can only be of the here and now.”
Who knows whether “PCR” is an exhibition good enough to go down in history? Tillmans certainly doesn’t. At this very moment in time, however, it’s a stunning show, filled with images that are tough to forget.
In one, the camera is turned on its head to mirror the point-of-view of a baby, who is being dangled upside-down by a man. In another, Tillmans shows us his desk, which overflows with tchotchkes and screens. And, in yet another, a man’s hairy ass and scrotum are unflinchingly pointed straight at the camera. (“We all look like that, probably, at a certain angle. It’s nothing to be afraid of,” Tillman said of that last one.)
If it is possible to draw any connection between the 100-plus works in “PCR,” it’s that each image feels like it has more information in it than what meets the eye. For one work in the show, Tillmans ran photo paper through the rollers of a printing machine and allowed nitrates to build up on the surface, creating silvery streaks. He then scanned that image and blew it up to gargantuan proportions. In the blow-up process, you lose the physical nitrates, Tillmans said, yet you also begin to have “infinite information, but it is absolutely flat, and it doesn’t have this material quality.
“So they both are completely rich,” he said, “even though they are missing a component. Often people want just one black-and-white answer, but the reality of life is that it is not black and white.”
These photographs, Tillmans added, are just two of many that he’s made without a camera in the past decade in response to the abundance of photography, thanks to iPhones and Instagram. “Now everyone’s walking around with a small camera,” Tillmans said. Art-world denizens were snapping pictures at that very moment.
The show’s title also refers to the way technology has made photographs so readily available—PCR, short for polymerase chain reaction, is the process by which DNA is multiplied using technology. Tillmans uses that here as a metaphor. Fittingly, it seems as if no corner of David Zwirner’s two West 19th Street spaces have gone untouched. Small photographs hang high above viewers’ heads, while large-form ones are clipped to walls.
Asked about his idiosyncratic installation style, Tillmans said, “My mother always gets mad at me for that,” and then, imitating her, “It doesn’t make any sense!” He paused to think. “I just feel that exhibitions are a spatial experience,” he said. “I see museums and galleries as laboratories that I can use.”
The genres of the photos are characteristically wide-ranging, stretching from old-school portraiture to nature photography to documentary images. It all feels so informal that you could read dancing clubbers or the late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer as close friends of Tillmans.
Tillmans said, “For years and years, the reception of my work and writing, it always sees these people as friends. But no one can have that many friends!”
Later, he continued, “I try to approach portraits with the least amount of safety netting. It has to be a genuineness that is not just wanting.”
Tillmans’s photography feels spontaneous because he tries to remove himself from the process and let his subjects do his work for him. In water melon still life (2011), Tillmans left a little piece of fruit in a bowl for a few days. The color of the watermelon separated from the substance left over. Tillmans knew he had caught something beautiful.
“Often, an active part is not doing something, of letting something be—like observing something, like seeing something, but not really acting upon it,” Tillmans said. “It’s sort of happening in the corner of the eye… This sort of mixture is actively encouraging something, initiating something whilst letting it happen, not interfering, letting chance play its role. That sort of stuff is in every picture of mine.”
Not too long after saying this, a small lighting fixture above Tillmans creaked and popped open. Tillmans turned around to see what everyone was looking at. He spun back and smiled. “What did I do?” he asked.