It was shortly after 11 am, and Wolfgang Tillmans' studio was coming to life. Assistants had gathered in a corner of the huge, light-filled space and were running Tillmans through their plans. Hundreds of artworks were packed and ready to go, but there were a few busy days still ahead.
Although masking is increasingly rare in Berlin these days, everybody's face was covered. Tillmans was worried that a coronavirus outbreak could derail the final preparations for his most significant exhibition to date: To Look Without Fear, a career retrospective that opens at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on Sept 12 and runs through Jan 1. His first major institutional show in New York, it had been postponed for 18 months because of the pandemic.
Just a few days earlier, he and many of his staff had celebrated the opening of a new building around the corner that Tillmans designed himself, with his home and exhibition space. "Afterwards we were all in a bar, smoking and shouting," Tillmans said, and made a face behind his mask. One of the studio workers later tested positive.
With MoMA technicians due at the studio the following week to collect the works and take them to New York, the stakes were high. To Look Without Fear will be Tillmans' largest ever show, occupying all of the museum's sixth-floor galleries. It looks set to cement his position as one of the world's most significant living artists, vindicating what he sees as a 35-year artistic mission that, because of its adjacency to youth culture and mass media, wasn't always taken so seriously.
Although MoMA owns over 40 of Tillmans' works, everything on the wall in the exhibition will be a personal print, drawn from his archive or reprinted for the occasion. All his major exhibitions are put together this way, allowing Tillmans to be completely in charge over the size and quality of each image. He and his team hang the unframed prints from binder clips, or tape them to the walls, clustering them in groups, or spreading them out in breezy arrangements that are, in fact, controlled to the millimeter.
Those presentations jumble images he has made in some recognisable art-historical categories - portraits, still life, landscapes - with works that fit loosely into photographic genres like reportage and fashion shoots, depictions of the sky and stars, and abstract pieces made with light but no camera. It's only when the pictures come together, though, that Tillmans' overall vision becomes clear, said Maureen Paley, his longtime London gallerist. "His work is the installation of the work," she said. "He is not someone that you could just define by a single image."
Yet many of Tillmans' solo pictures will be familiar to MoMA visitors even if they aren't regular museum goers, like a portrait of Frank Ocean in the shower that appeared on the cover of the rapper's album, Blonde, or The Cock (Kiss), a carefree 2002 snap of two men making out in a London nightclub: In 2016, that image went viral on social media after the homophobic mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida.
The change in the picture's meaning - from a celebration of gay desire to a defiant assertion of civil rights - reflects a shift in Tillmans' work. Whereas his early pictures invited the viewer into his personal world of sexual liberation, borderless travel and joyful togetherness, in more recent works, and in his increasing engagement as a political campaigner, he has argued that those freedoms are fragile, and based on wins that, if not safeguarded, can be lost.
It would be impossible, however, to impose a single narrative on Tillmans' sprawling output. He is a photographer, sure - but he is also a video artist, installation maker, DJ, singer, record producer and architect. He has edited books, given performance lectures and published interviews with philosophers, pop stars and scientists. "He's a polymath, really," said Roxana Marcoci, the curator of the MoMA show.
"I never thought of him just in terms of photography," she added. His work can be music, she said, or sculpture, or "it can be the cover of a record, or it can be the layout of a magazine."
Tillmans lives between Berlin and London, though he travels frequently; in July, he wrapped an 8-city tour of Africa with an exhibition called Fragile that concluded in Lagos, Nigeria. The MoMA show includes photos from Russia, China, Jamaica, Argentina, Saudi Arabia and Congo, as well as pictures over 3 decades from New York City and Fire Island, where he also owns a home. ("It's one of the last houses on the Pines," Tillmans said. "So as far removed from the parties as you can be.")
Tillmans, who described his personal connection to New York as "super meaningful," has presented 13 exhibitions in the city's galleries since the 1990s, including a major exhibition at David Zwirner in 2015, and a show of abstract works at the PS1 Center for Contemporary Art before it became MoMA PS1.
At the time of his first New York show, at Andrea Rosen Gallery, in 1994, he moved to the city for a two-year stint. In an East Village bar, he met Jochen Klein, a fellow German and a painter of dreamy landscapes, who Tillmans has called "the love of my life." In 1996, they moved to London together; an oil work they made in collaboration is now in the collection of the Pinakothek der Moderne, in Munich. But that romantic and artistic idyll was cut short the following year when Klein fell ill and died from AIDS-related pneumonia. At around the same time, Tillmans learned that he, too, was HIV-positive.
In 17 Years' Supply, a photograph Tillmans took 17 years after Klein's death, he shows a cardboard box full of pill bottles for the antiretroviral drugs that have kept him alive. And he has lent a hand, both financially and as a photographer, he said, to advocacy groups such as the South-Africa based Treatment Action Campaign: In 2006, he photographed an international summit of health care professionals in Cape Town for a book that the organisation used to lobby officials.
He felt "very acutely, this divide of people getting treatment, and those who don't," he said. "I just had to look at what I can do, in my work, and my talents, to help." It was Tillmans' first step into political campaigning, and a copy of the book is now in the collection of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
At the centre of the MoMA show, taking up most of the largest room, is an installation called Truth Study Center. It consists of 18 wooden tables, overlaid with plexiglass, on which Tillmans has layered hundreds of photographs and ephemera in a noisy polyphony of competing realities, from Islamist recruitment stickers found in a London street, to Financial Times stories and a cover from American Survival Guide, a magazine for doomsday preppers.
Tillmans first presented a simpler, less text-heavy version of the work in 2005, at Paley's gallery in London. "Then no one talked about post-truth, fake news or whatever," Tillmans said. Earlier iterations focused on misinformation around themes including the war in Iraq, HIV in Africa and Muslims in Europe, as well as astronomy, a passion of Tillmans' since childhood; with subsequent showings, the work has grown and evolved to keep pace with the times.
Truth Study Center was about the danger of "one institution, or one authority," claiming a final say on reality, Tillmans explained. "As much as I believe in what the James Webb telescope tells us, and science, and that Earth is orbiting the sun, this is not a direct pledge for one single purveyor of truth."
Scattered on the tables are short texts Tillmans wrote himself that jolt the viewer into a sense of historical time. "Now 1993 is as long ago as the Civil Rights Act was in 1993," reads one; another says, "Martin Luther King's I had dream speech was 27 years prior to 1990. 27 years past 1990, Donald J. Trump was sworn in as the President of the United States." These make you realise, Tillmans said, that "things go forward, but they also go back."
Tillmans' own career has also unfolded in cycles, with some ebbs and flows. As a music-obsessed teenager in Remscheid, a small city in what was then West Germany, he dreamed of being a pop star and recorded a few tracks with a neighbour: Tillmans on vocals, and his friend on synths and drums. Thirty years later, he came back to that cassette recording, remastering its three songs and adding two new tracks, to create his first EP, 2016/1986, which he released on his own label, Fragile.
He has since released four more EPs of electronic music, and last year, he brought out his first album, Moon in Earthlight, a 53-minute continuous mix combining ambient noise recordings, spoken word, pulsating club tracks and pure pop moments, like the single Insanely Alive, which Pet Shop Boys remixed for the song's 12-inch release. At MoMA, Moon in Earthlight will be presented as an installation in a specially designed room, with a complementary video.
He also sees campaigning as part of his aesthetic practice, he said, referencing German artist Joseph Beuys's concept of "social sculpture," in which creative political actions reshape society. In 2016, Tillmans had been living in London for 20 years and had taken advantage of free movement within the European Union to build an international career. In the lead-up to the referendum over whether Britain should leave the EU, Tillmans devoted himself and the resources of his studio to a campaign to keep Britain in. He designed posters and T-shirts featuring slogans and longer texts, some of them overlaid on his photos - What is lost is lost forever, read one, over a picture of the sky - and gave dozens of interviews in which he made the case to stay.
"Citizen campaigning is nothing I had planned on at all. This was literally a citizen's emergency for me," he said. "I saw one of the foundations of my life, the EU and cooperation in Europe, under attack."
When the poll was counted, and 52 per cent had voted to leave, Tillmans, a lifelong Anglophile, was crushed. "Certain things that you find funny, or cute, you realize: They're not so funny," he said. "The depth of the exceptionalism and nationalism is really worrying." He took himself off to Fire Island for a few months.
What Tillmans called "the whole earthquakes of 2016" had given him a sense of "the fragility of what is considered unkaputtbar," he said, using the German word for "unbreakable." "Civil rights have to be defended, and democracy has to be defended. I was always aware of that," he said. "In recent years, it's become a superstrong awareness."
Tillmans said he had met with lawmakers to discuss standing for the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament. "There have been exchanges," he said, but declined to say whom he consulted. There is a definite left-wing sensibility to Tillmans' work as both image maker and activist, with its focus on equality, community and cooperation; however, he ruled out working with Die Linke, Germany's party of the far left, and added that it can be helpful to have "just as many ears" with conservative politicians and voters.
Whatever happened next, he said, he would be taking his foot off the gas for a while first. With the completion of his new building, "and the end of the Africa tour - which, of course, also like MoMA, was extended by the pandemic - I feel like there is a new sabbatical coming," Tillmans said. "I like to think in these seven-year cycles," he said, and it had been more than that long since the last one. It was time to pause and reflect.
At lunchtime on the day of the studio visit, Tillmans and I took a break and went downstairs to an Italian restaurant. His work space is in an annex of a modernist building from the early 1930s with huge rectangular windows. It was designed by Bauhaus architect Max Taut as a cooperative, worker-run department store, a utopian project that didn't last. Once the Nazis took power, they denounced consumer co-ops as "Jewish-Marxist" organisations.
"You are interested in the building? Then I will show you something," Tillmans said. He took me into a lobby where one of the walls was covered by a huge black-and-white photograph of the square outside. The building's gleaming facade looked so sleek, and it seemed incongruous to see people in front wearing the long coats and hats of the early 1930s. Tillmans pointed at some lampposts whose stacked cone bases looked like spaceships.
"See how cool Germany was then - how Europe was?" he said. "That can also come to an end." NYTimes