Wolfgang Tillmans

Museum of Contemporary Art

In conjunction with a retrospective at the Tate Britain in 2003 photographer Wolfgang Tillmans published a compendium of images–some 2,000 of them–under a title that summed up his philosophy: If One Thing Matters, Everything Matters. The 300-plus images now at the Museum of Contemporary Art, in the first large-scale Tillmans show mounted in this country (cocurated with LA’s Hammer Museum), provide the opportunity to ponder this declaration and assess the supporting evidence. The exhibit’s huge size might make some feel that too much matters to Tillmans, while others might conclude from his more graphic images that he’s famous because he knows how to shock. But ultimately this wide-ranging show, by turns sublime and unnerving, poignant and obscene, meditative and droll, demonstrates how an artist’s unrelenting attention to the world and his craft can reveal the significance in subjects others would dismiss or miss altogether.

One measure of Tillmans’s talent is his accomplished handling of multiple genres: formal and impromptu portraits, still lifes, cityscapes, landscapes, and experimental abstractions. In his hanging of the show (which lacks the customary curatorial apparatus of titles, dates, and commentary in wall texts), provocative pieces–frank depictions of private parts, homosexual acts, and wastes being voided–are juxtaposed with innocuous, even mundane offerings. This is what I see in my days and long nights, he seems to say, this is what my friends show me or I get them to do in front of me. When not sensational, the subjects are often ordinary: there are several shots of dirty laundry strewn across nondescript floors and steadily observed if blurry scenes of art-world bacchanalia. Surely these things don’t matter, you think–but then a trail of discarded socks makes a sufficiently recognizable pattern to justify the title, Genome. All the images ultimately insist on the miracle of the quotidian.

It may be Tillmans’s preoccupation with transience that makes the experience of youth so central to his work. Born in 1968 in Germany but now living in London, he began taking photos at 10, had his first solo show before he was 20, and won Britain’s prestigious Turner Prize when he was 31. He’s clearly avid and full of sap, favoring as subjects those Shakespeare calls the “golden lads and girls” who “must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust.” Whether writhing and sweating in clubs or marching to protest W or the WTO, Tillmans’s subjects are brazenly alive, and his feeling for them is intense. Still, the almost total absence of older subjects suggests an insider’s narcissism: his vision is less inclusive than he’d like to think. You wonder whether he’ll start to record the middle-aged and elderly as he himself grows older. Meanwhile some of his images smack of adolescent smirking, like the shot of a semiengorged penis stretching like a bridge from the lap of an airline passenger toward his cluttered breakfast tray.

The age, station, and habits of Tillmans’s subjects unmistakably align him with two art stars: Nan Goldin, the quintessential chronicler of New York’s drug-wrecked wraiths, and Elizabeth Peyton, painter of the beautiful people. (Tillmans has done portraits of both but doesn’t include either in this retrospective, as if disavowing the connections.) A large portrait of filmmaker Chris Cunningham lying on a rumpled bed looks exactly like one of Peyton’s celebrity gamines, minus the brushwork, and any number of morning-after vignettes mixing exhaustion and melancholy could be outtakes from Goldin’s definitive sequence, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.

The qualities that distinguish Tillmans’s show are its versatility, ambition, and sense of humor. Like some shutterbug god, he has a vision that runs the gamut from the epiphanic to the skanky. He includes both a breathtaking view of a rainbow arcing over a Shaker village and a disgusting image of a Mohawked punk sending a cascade of urine onto an office chair. Few of his many color-field and/or pinpoint and tracer-streak abstractions are more than mildly compelling, but at least he’s trying something different. And his 2005 “Empire” series, created by photographing and blowing up xeroxed reproductions of earlier images, is worth the price of admission; Empire (Christ) features silhouetted figures in a haunting configuration. The humorous Hairy Back (2002) shows a mass of damp tendrils climbing from the waistband of a man’s shorts, a branching invasion of which he’s apparently unaware. Elephant Man, from the same year, captures the moment when a man standing on the verge of a churning ocean has his scarf blown onto an elephant’s proboscis–it’s as if one of Caspar David Friedrich’s brooding, solitary figures had been goosed by nature.

Tillmans’s reliance on shock tactics and interest in amassing images might both be interpreted as a need to push buttons. These impulses make his work more hit-and-miss than that of the artists his photographs sometimes suggest. Yet he also has a mastery of the sublime all his own. Fire Island (1995), shot at dusk from the sea toward the island playground’s tiny lights, reveals gradations from dark purple to egg-yolk yellow at the horizon while a dying sun gorgeously paints the waves. And last year’s exquisitely composed Meeting Life, a small-scale view of an antiquated bridge beyond the concrete of a modern embankment, teems with details while remaining quiet as a Vermeer.

When: Through 8/13

Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago

Price: $10 suggested admission; $6 students, seniors; kids under 12 free. Tuesdays free.

Info: 312-280-2660

More: Exhibit tour Tue 7/18 at noon

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York, and Regen Projects, Los Angeles.