Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Wolfgang Tillmans Retrospective at SFMOMA

The 54-year-old German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans has a retrospective exhibit that was created for MOMA in New York City, moved on for a visit to Toronto, and is now residing on the entire 7th floor of SFMOMA for another three weeks.
Tillmans famously installs his own exhibits with a small team, changing it for each space. He has long made it a practice to eccentrically jumble the large and the small, the framed and the pinned, the singular and the photocopy all together. His quoted mantra is: "If one thing matters, everything matters."
I have been through the exhibit three times over the last couple of months, and still don't quite know what to make of it.
Take the two photos from San Francisco above, for instance. There is a huge color photo of the cable car stop at Van Ness Avenue and California Street, looking up towards Nob Hill, a desultory take on a tourist institution.
Next to it is a small candid of two naked hairy male backs at the Hole in the Wall, a gay bar at 8th and Folsom Streets.
One of the last published pieces by Peter Schjeldahl, the late, great art critic for the Village Voice (1990-1998) and The New Yorker magazine (1998-2022) was about this exhibition when it opened in New York. Though not enthused by everything, he declares at the onset: “To look without fear,” the immense, flabbergastingly installed retrospective of the German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans, at the Museum of Modern Art, persuades me that the man is a genius." (Click here for a link.)
With each visit, what I have come to most enjoy are certain individual photographs, some of them candids and some of them deliberately staged.
There is a sweetness to many of them, even when shrouded with a Germanic dourness.
There is also a slide show presentation, Architect's Book, in a darkened room where 450 photographs of buildings, or parts of them, are shown in odd juxtapositions with each other, one after the other. Most fine architectural photography aspires to the pristine, but these photos are almost the opposite of that aesthetic, with air conditioners, people, rotting walls, and odd bits of marginalia intruding on architectural perfection. It's fascinating, though it turned off my photographer friend Donald who said, "As I have painfully found out, artists shouldn't curate their own work." To which I replied, "If you're proclaimed a genius, they let you do it."

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