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Tillmans’ Photographic Alchemies

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Contrasts of image content, size, and media all in one gallery

Wolfgang Tillmans’ exhibition at P.S. 1 features a new series of large-scale abstract photographs—some unique, others based on previous imagery. This is the first U.S. museum show for Tillmans, a German-born, London-based artist whose work came to international prominence during the 1990s. “Freedom From The Known” is consistent with Tillmans’ oeuvre in the sense that it was conceived as an installation, and there’s a lot to see. However, this show departs from his previous gallery presentations wherein photographs were directly taped or clipped to the wall with deliberate informality. Images displayed at P.S. 1 are framed behind glass or encased in Plexiglas boxes.

The major new works develop a theme of abstraction that has run parallel to Tillmans’ better-known iconographic images since the beginning of his career. They are up to ten feet high. To achieve them, Tillmans manipulated enormous sheets of chromogenic C print paper with light in the darkroom. Such images are typically described as camera-less, meaning that no negative was used. One huge C print entitled “it’s only love give it away” features crisp black lines suggestive of eyelashes or feathery magnetic forces swaying above soft purple tones. Others convey quite different romantic yet industrial moods through their use of unpredictable colors, compositions, and titles. Titles play a strong role in Tillmans’ work.

To balance the impact of these big C prints, Tillmans juxtaposes some small photocopies of his own images and a Xeroxed newspaper article. Viewers unfamiliar with Tillmans will be quickly clued in to his heterodox, destratified approach to image making and image output when confronted with such extreme contrasts of image content, size, and media in one gallery. This artist’s longstanding interest in the sources and materiality of pictures, as well as the variety of meanings that can be set in motion when iconography and abstraction interplay, are much in evidence throughout the show.

On display in another room, in yet another mode, a large C print entitled “Empire (Punk)” looks like a very large fax. Indeed it was a fax, once upon a time. The much degraded imagery of a young man began as a portrait taken by Tillmans, who faxed this portrait to create a new version of the image as a fax—following a logic akin to that of Warhol’s photo-silkscreen prints. Then in 2005, Tillmans reworked the faxed image again, scanning it at high resolution in order to make a large C print.

Other images from the Empire series include a crouching soldier handling a gun, the silhouette shadow of a man’s head, and an extreme close up of bearded skin.

Whereas the camera-less photographs are unique prints, the Empire series employs iconography and magnifies low-grade photographic reproduction technologies, such as faxed imagery, into the realm of high tech, high art, and pure data.

In “Freedom From The Known,” Tillmans presents viewers with a surfeit of information that parallels the complexity of the world we move through and decipher everyday. As in his previous exhibitions, the diversity of photographic technologies becomes a subject in itself, one that plays a crucial role in the construction of disjunctive meanings and associations prompted by Tillmans’ unusual framing of people, places, and things.

In this show, where iconography is less prevalent, Tillmans’ analytical process is much more evident. He has said that his approach to abstraction is rooted in an adolescent fascination with astronomy, a tantalizing insight into the mind of an artist who has always emphasized the sociopolitical dimension of his humanist sensibility. “Freedom From The Known” reveals that a fortuitous collision of empirical science and emotional sensitivity may be part of what fuels the burning energy beneath Tillmans’ investigation of photography, and life itself.

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Updated 5:17 pm, July 20, 2018
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