I feel lucky to be alive during the time that Wolfgang Tillmans is making art.
That was my immediate reaction leaving the 48-year-old photographer’s stunning survey at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel. Over the course of the past three decades, Tillmans has been such a consistently inventive and influential artist that it has become dangerously easy to take his work for granted. He makes photography look almost too effortless, working big and small, moving from one subject to another, dipping into video and music. Thankfully, this show of some 200 works, which includes a sizable helping of recent prints, offers a chance to become reacquainted with Tillmans’s work—or, in my case, to fall in love with it all over again.
A solid cross-section of Tillmans’s work is in the exhibition, which was curated by the museum’s senior curator, Theodora Vischer, with input from the artist. There are the classic portraits, which exude quiet intimacies, enduring bonds, and, very often, hints of good, healthy sex—a thin young man kneeling, seen from the back, his head tilted as if he’s just heard and understood something; Kate Moss in a red dress, legs spread, perhaps taking a break during a shoot; a topless young woman holding the penis of a bottomless young man (Lutz and Alex, the title says); the singer Kelela in a Nike gray hoodie, standing on a street corner, giving the camera a slightly quizzical look.
And there are the still lifes, like two large photos of little things in peoples’ homes—a fan, some peaches, a brush, and candies in one; a row of plants, a couple rocks, a black Bic lighter, and some scattered dirt in another. Tillmans homes in on marginal and in-between sights, things on the periphery that picture life, even when actual people are absent. Even when he photographs a person, himself included, objects reveal the presence, now or in the past, of other important people. There’s a whole world sitting outside his frames.
And there are the landscapes—a wave crashing as loudly as one in a Courbet; the tranquil, infinite blue sky out the window of a plane; and a tree overlooking a lush blue-green lake, shot at an angle so that it almost becomes an abstraction, a nearly Rothko-like field of pure, bleeding color.
Much has been made of Tillmans’s ability to make both figurative and abstract photography—praise that is reminiscent of that directed toward Gerhard Richter’s working in both modes—but one senses that Tillmans sees those two formats not so much as a fixed binary but as poles on the opposite ends of a spectrum that he relishes moving across. He elides any supposed boundary between the two, fading certain photos toward illegibility, cropping others so that they veer toward pure form, and conjuring images in the dark room whose swirling lines and subtly undulating colors suggest narratives.
Like Brassaï, he revels in the abstract coincidences, like a tree somehow perfectly shaped for a view out the window, at least when caught from the right angle. In Geyser (2004), he helps that process along, partially smudging out a man on a ferry deck so that he becomes a ghost looming behind another man who is talking on the phone, himself being pulled via his cell service into another place.
Again and again in Tillmans’s work, you feel privileged to be there with him, waking up in the aftermath of a party, sharing a laugh with friends, or marching at a Black Lives Matter protest, because you know that these things are fleeting, that they have occurred and are receding into the past.
In his images of technology, he underscores the melancholy of both photography and his own practice—recording and preserving what is now gone. On the lower level of the museum he has hung in a row seven huge prints of the Concorde plane—that once miraculous element of a future that has now been abandoned—flying overhead and disappearing into the distance. In another row, on view up above, the beds of three copy machines glow in a dimly lit room, about to save and to share, as best as they can, whatever is presented to them.