Wolfgang Tillmans’ 90s photo tour is a blast. But is it high art?

Sweat matted our armpit hair. During housewarming parties, we ransack the kitchens. The fruits of these same kitchens looked numinous in the morning light. Just like socks draped over radiators at night. We went to raves, demonstrations and gay pride parades, watched wars on TV. We fell in love with Kate Moss and REM and Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides” and the way Sinéad O’Connor bent her voice right under the notes of her cover of a Prince song. People we knew, and some we observed from afar, looked dazed and inexplicably tender from certain angles, under certain lights.

I speak, of course, of the 1990s – maybe my 90s, but especially of the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans (born in 1968) and his 90s.

Tillmans’ photographs, from the 1990s and beyond, fill an extensive gallery suite at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in a retrospective titled “To Look Without Fear” (it will travel to the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, then at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2023). The show is full of humor, compassion and surprise. I love how it hangs, with huge prints covering huge swaths of the wall next to clusters of tiny snapshots, most stuck to the wall but some tossed into corners or placed next to exit signs rescue. The show made me so nostalgic that sometimes I wanted to squat down and cry.

However, I am torn as to what this represents. Is Tillmans a great photographer? A great artist? Does it really deserve a retrospective at MoMA?

I mean, of course. Why not? Tillmans, 54, has been around for a long time and there is something exemplary about him. But strip away the halo of ’90s nostalgia and he’s essentially a snapshot and a fashion photographer blessed with the zeitgeist and turbocharged with ambition.

The MoMA exhibition is accompanied by a voluminous catalog and a 352-page “Reader” by Wolfgang Tillmans. The implication – that Tillmans is not just a photographer, but also some sort of heavyweight public intellectual – stretches it a bit. I would invoke Susan Sontag’s definition of camp as “a serious dud”, but I see the cover text of John Waters, the “King of Camp”, as a step forward: “The Discourse on Print Art in museums can he be so clever, that it becomes sexually arousing to the reader?” Waters concludes, after a sequence of comically hyperbolic effusions. “Of course it can.

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If it seems odd that MoMA has dedicated all of its exhibition space to the sixth floor for Tillmans, it is also instructive. MoMA is no longer the MoMA of old. For a long time he tried – as he tried – to contain the barbaric tide. But she finally had to admit that, outside her walls, the old hierarchies of cultural value had collapsed. Today, we are permitted to ask ourselves — aloud if we love! – if Picasso was as great as everyone claims. We can dare to suggest that a photograph or a dress can have as much weight as a painting or a bronze sculpture.

When did it happen? When was the prestige attached to certain forms of culture most radically stripped?

Why, in the 1990s, of course.

Previous pushes in this direction occurred in Paris in the 1870s (the Impressionists) and New York in the 1950s, when avant-garde artists and poets embraced chance and collage with the idea that commodities and everyday experience could be elevated into poetry (Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery) and fine art (Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol).

But these were skirmishes. The 1990s saw the quivering membrane still separating “high” art from everyday life completely collapse. The result? A rout. The idea of ​​a “high” culture drained credibility, while previously frequented “low” forms such as television, rap and fashion became turbines of (often collective) creativity.

The 1990s was the decade in which all sorts of repressions and stigmas were lifted, but in a room, alas, from which all the old meanings had been sucked. It was both liberating and depressing. The signals were jammed. Confusion reigned. The Berlin Wall had fallen – hooray! – but no one knew who was in control of nuclear weapons anymore. One communist empire had collapsed, while another – China – embraced capitalism. HIV infection rates had stabilized in the United States and Europe, but in sub-Saharan Africa the virus was wreaking terrifying havoc.

It was a decade in which a British magazine could declare – knowing its readers would instantly get it – that Kate Moss was “the face of the 90s – the face that reminds you that your optimism was misplaced”. And it was a decade from which Tillmans emerged as the epitome.

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In the 1990s, Tillmans photographed friends and window sills, hairy armpits, boring architecture, ecstatic dance parties and the detritus that remained in the morning. He photographed Moss and Waters and Michael Stipe and nightclubs and boys going to war. Her photographs are exhibited in galleries and published in alternative fashion magazines.

It was the era of Nirvana and the Pet Shop Boys. Fashion no longer conformed to the top-down model, where prestigious fashion houses set trends that were followed, in diluted form, on the streets. Instead, big brands watched and co-opted style decisions (and non-decisions) made on the street. All of this is reflected in the fashion photographs of Corinne Day, Glenn Luchford, Steven Meisel, Mario Sorrenti and Juergen Teller, but none of these photographers have established a foothold in the art world.

Tillmans did. He was smart and articulate, and he wanted more.

Early on he embraced Nan Goldin’s snapshot aesthetic, but he ignored Goldin’s heavily autobiographical narratives. His vision was more disinterested, more ecumenical. Everything caught his eye, not just people. If his subjects seemed random, they were random as life, where one day you might be peering into an airplane cockpit or examining a fungus on a dead tree and the next day you might be staring into the eyes of a beautiful man with a shaved head and surprisingly red ears.

Tillmans’ abstractions, many of which are included in this exhibition, are also rooted in chance. These are beautiful dreamy images, made without a camera by exposing light-sensitive paper to different light sources. Printed to scale as museum-ready abstract paintings, they recall the work of fellow Germans Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.

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Richter’s endless back and forth between photographs and large-scale abstract paintings showed the art world that an apprehension of nonsense and a technique dependent on chance could nonetheless produce images of ravishing beauty. . Tillmans followed the same playbook. If it doesn’t sound as original or as compelling as Richter or Polke, that too is symptomatic of the 90s, when almost everyone worked under the illusion that everything had already been done.

Tillmans marveled at “how in real life we ​​find that our actions are always already a step ahead of their social and behavioral descriptions”. This idea – which we escape our descriptions – shines through powerfully at MoMA, and it’s what I love most about Tillmans. He himself is more than a gay artist, or a German artist; more than a fashion photographer, a portrait painter or a political activist.

And, of course, he’s more than a “90s photographer.” Since the end of that decade, he has continued to do solid work. More recent topics have included Frank Ocean, June Leaf, the moon, and poured concrete. His sense of beauty, fragility and singularity remains intact.

My advice when visiting this exhibition is to put aside Wolfgang Tillmans’ “Reader” and forget about the intellectualization of the 90s, and let the photographs simply overwhelm you. (The lack of wall tags really helps). You may find them banal, as they deliberately are in some ways. But you can also perceive, as another German – Herman Hesse – wrote in earlier times, “how everything was incomprehensible, and in fact sad, even though it was so beautiful”.

Wolfgang Tillmans: Looking Without Fear Until January 1 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

Jack C. Nugent