Fear and Loathing at MoMA: A Conversation on Wolfgang Tillmans and Meret Oppenheim

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from September 12, 2022 – January 1, 2023. Photo: Emile Askey

To look without fear. That’s the title of Wolfgang Tillmans’s current dizzying retrospective at MoMA. But this begs questions, namely, who is supposed to be looking without fear? Tillmans? The audience? If it’s the viewers, what are we bravely confronting? Berlin clubs? Photographs of Frank Ocean, Kate Moss, and Chloë Sevigny? A whole lot of images of skinny white gay men? Streetwear? To try to make sense of all this fear and loathing, as well as toss a little adoration towards Meret Oppenheim, Emily Colucci and Jessica Caroline had a chat about their respective trips to MoMA:

Emily Colucci: I’ve never really liked Wolfgang Tillmans’s work. I know that’s not the popular consensus, but I’ve always felt alienated by it. I’m nearly alone in this as I’ve spent the last couple of days after viewing Tillmans’s To look without fear reading other critics’ gushing reviews, whether Jerry Saltz, Jason Farago, or the late Peter Schjeldahl. All these critics have used words like “genius,” “visionary,” and the one I find the most head-scratching “unpretentious.” Really? To me, To look without fear is pure pretension, from Tillmans’s exhausting hanging style to the meta inclusion of photographs of viewers looking at his own art (ugh!) to the presence of Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader, a collection of interviews with the artist placed on benches throughout the exhibition space (Is his work really all that complex that we need a Reader?).

And this pretentiousness begins immediately with the exhibition’s framing: looking without fear. On the website, the exhibition description starts with a quote from Tillmans: “The viewer…should enter my work through their own eyes and their own lives.” Uh, ok. Isn’t that how we view everything? To cut short my rant, I’m curious if you have more insight into what exactly the exhibition’s title means. Did you find the show as pretentious as I did? 

Jessica: The title is overblown and heavy-handed. It fails to articulate Tillmans’s customary soft bombardment of imagery, which in this exhibition prioritizes quantity over quality. Tillmans is an earnest artist—he describes photography as a “mystical” or alchemical practice and seeks to emphasize the fragility of photography by clipping, pinning, or Scotch-taping them to the wall. I read curator Roxana Marcoci’s MoMA catalogue essay “The Wandering Image” and much of it was incomprehensible to me. Take this excerpt as a case in point:

“Indeed, Tillmans’s work raises a number of questions: Might the mediated image at times be more impactful or enduring than a direct experience of the work? Might it be equally significant, even if different? How to see and how to communicate seeing are at the crux of photography’s capacity to articulate the world in relational terms – decentered, nonhierarchical, open to differences. Making connections between images seen for the first time or images looked at again in new configurations or across a spectrum of platforms as if for the first time–all this constitutes the evolving knowledge of the visible.”

I don’t trust writing like this: posing vague questions to the reader and using terms like “relational” and “the visible.” The italicized words clarify nothing. I don’t understand how this style of writing came to be so pervasive when it’s so unpersuasive. And if we were witnessing what she describes as “unfettered circulation,” we would be looking at contact sheets and other rejectamenta. I don’t think it’s a “democratized experience of art” either since certain images are given primacy by virtue of their size and where they are situated. You can’t really escape hierarchy unless you hang everything in uniform order.

Emily: “The evolving knowledge of the visible.” What knowledge is that exactly? That literally means nothing. 

What’s so funny about Roxana’s adherence to that alienating institutional/academic style of blather–basically slamming a bunch of artspeak vocabulary words together like you’re writing an essay for English class due tomorrow while on Adderall at 3 AM– is that she’s talking about a “democratized experience of art” while writing in such a way that the majority of human beings cannot understand. Later in her essay, she talks about “Tillmans’s peripatetic images.” I had to look up peripatetic. A reader shouldn’t have to have a dictionary handy in order to understand your essay about Tillmans, who, again, I don’t think is that complicated of an artist. Ultimately, that type of writing is a form of gatekeeping. Unsurprising, of course, but it is particularly ironic when the essay in question is using terms like “nonhierarchical.” In fact, anything mentioning “nonhierarchical” in reference to MoMA is real fucking rich considering how they treat even their unionized workers. I also like that the MoMA Magazine published an excerpt of the essay, cutting the text off mid-thought as if anyone was going to be so riveted, they’d have to run out to buy the $75 catalogue.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from September 12, 2022 – January 1, 2023. Photo: Emile Askey

Jessica: And that’s a unionized effort – hopefully, they succeeded. This is pretty typical museum behavior when you look at similar battles happening across the New Museum, the Whitney, the Guggenheim, and so on… To your other point about the rhapsodic mania of the reviews, they baffled me too. Jerry Saltz described Tillmans as a “visionary polymath.” He is not a polymath – he’s a photographer of high and lowbrow and dabbles in other things, such as filmmaking and music composition. He doesn’t transcend photography; he experiments with the medium. “Artist” should suffice! Saltz goes on to describe his “sublime” and “ecstatic vision” as though Tillmans were William Blake. He then draws a cathedral analogy. Have you noticed how everything can be construed as a cathedral these days? Thanks, Curtis Yarvin. 

I’m very much allergic to the G word, especially when applied to the arts. At least Schjeldahl mustered some degree of criticism in his review, but to kick things off with a headline describing Tillmans as a “polymorphous genius” made me think Schjeldahl was probably softening as we all tend to with age, illness, and painkillers. From his introductory paragraph:

“Geniuses alter the basic terms of the fields of art or science which happen to engage them. Criteria that once applied no longer compel. The ground zero at MoMA is ‘art photography,’ its former autonomy diluted in a tsunami of images from Tillmans, in wildly varying sizes, mediums, and formats, which are often mounted from floor to ceiling, and may less risk than exalt banality.”

Tillmans does risk banality, superficiality, and literal-mindedness. Schjeldahl’s review included a still life with Caravaggio postcards lined along a windowsill beside a flower in a glass, imaginatively titled window/Caravaggio. The image itself is pleasant enough, as most objects are when bathed in sunlight, but it’s predominantly boring and obvious as a concept.

Farago described the Tillmans exhibit as “one of the saddest shows I have seen in my life. It is an exhibition of abandonment, deception, obsolescence. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.” Abandonment? Deception? I think his work can certainly be solemn. Take Silvio (U-bahn), for example, which depicts a candle-lit memorial to a young activist killed by neo-Nazis in Berlin. 17 years’ supply, a box full of used antiretroviral HIV drugs, is a quotidian and abject image, a sedate reflection of a life endured through a regime of medication. The portraits of Tillmans’s partner, the German painter Jochen Klein, are melancholic, tender, and bittersweet. Jochen taking a bath was taken months before Jochen’s death from AIDS and an earlier picture of Jochen with his open, antler-ish fingers in Deer Hirsch appears on the latest cover of Art Forum, containing an essay by Alex Kitnick, which uses a more moderate yet reverential vocabulary describing Tillmans’s “coolness” and “casualness.” Tillmans’s work is more photojournalistic than psychodramatic, while also embedded in fashion editorial instincts and the glamour-grunge echelons of society. Any generosity of spirit, sadness, and ebullience gets swallowed by the volume of work and the darting nature of the viewing experience.

Emily: I’m glad, unlike my sweeping generic critique, you delved into these gushing love letters to Tillmans in a little more depth. It brings into view something I noticed but didn’t really articulate: it seems as if the critics all use Tillmans’s work as a jumping-off point to ramble about whatever it is they want to. They see what they want to see. Saltz is frequently guilty of this in his writing generally. You just have to look at his waxing poetic about David Hammons’s construction shed on the Hudson (which I openly hate) and how it represents all of New York history somehow to see that. But, these two other critics seem to do the same thing. That is sort of interesting in itself, speaking to a kind of Warholian “I’ll Be Your Mirror” impact of Tillmans’s work that I don’t particularly think he is going for. Or it just says something about how critics anymore barely engage with the work itself, but use it towards their own ends. I assume it has much more to do with the latter.

For instance, with Farago’s critique, I didn’t find To look without fear a sad show because the hanging style flattens every image out so that it reaches, for me at least, complete meaninglessness. If I consider Jochen taking a bath by itself, it’s quite loving and moving. It reminds me of Hugh Steers’s paintings of caretaking at the height of the AIDS pandemic, including domestic renderings of men bathing their partners in small apartment tubs. Same with the monotony of 17 years’ supply, which is such a strikingly mundane way to represent chronic illness, reminiscent again of the piles of pill bottles tossed unceremoniously in the corner in Jack Waters and Peter Cramer’s installation Short Memory/No History, shown in Visual AIDS’s 2013 Not Over exhibition. Yet, these photographs in the show are surrounded by so much other visual noise that I really could not take the time to consider any of this within the museum itself. It’s only now that I’m sitting down at my computer that I have the mental space to make any of these associations. 

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from September 12, 2022 – January 1, 2023. Photo: Emile Askey

And that speaks to what my main problem has always been with Tillmans’s work: his trademark hanging style, a mishmash of small prints unceremoniously taped to the wall, torn-out magazine pages, and photocopies, interspersed with more conventional and often monumental framed prints. From both critics and curators, like in Marcoci’s essay, this installation style is usually heralded as some sort of democratization of photography: the intersection of high and low, art photography and editorial photography, that strips away the preciousness that we impose on the high art object. But those proclamations seem to fall flat for a few reasons: First, in 2022, it’s no longer radical to transgress the boundaries between high art and low art. Secondly, it’s hard to view this arrangement as wholly revolutionary when Tillmans has installed his work like this for decades. It’s like an act that never changes, a washed-up schtick. The MoMA retrospective would actually have been more notable had they hung his photographs more conventionally! And finally, it gives me so much visual overload that it makes me long for the sanctity of high art! 

At MoMA, I had to force myself to commit to staying in the galleries and not just running out. The brochure corresponding to the exhibition quotes Tillman: “If one thing matters, everything matters.” But I find this hanging style does the opposite, nothing matters! Some critics have compared it to social media platforms like Instagram, a combination of all sorts of imagery, but that overlooks that the grid is user-friendly! Yet I think I know why he does it. This installation style actually covertly works to shield his photography from criticism. I just don’t find most of his photographs on an individual basis to be all that compelling. 

Jessica: Tillmans has made the contrived-spontaneity salon hang his schtick. Each work relies on the others for a sense of cosmic drama. I have seen similar installations of his work over the years and yes, it’s less like an Instagram grid and more like having too many jpegs on your desktop. You find yourself looking for redundant images and folders to drag to the trash can. I’m not sure that entropy is the most effective approach.

Wolfgang Tillmans, rat on trashbags and rat, disappearing, 1995 (photo by Emily)

Emily: To avoid being complete downers, before I get into more complaints, let’s chat about what we did like. Despite being unable to focus my attention on any work for too long, I did dig some of the photographs. Embarrassingly many of them are his portraits of famous people. I say embarrassingly because due to the show’s hang, these inclusions feel like namedrops when they appear. Oh, there’s John Waters. Oh, it’s Quentin Crisp. Oh, that’s Nan Goldin. Maybe this has a lot to do with my own predilection for idol worship, but these three portraits were some of my favorites, particularly Nan’s. That photograph seems like such an appropriate tribute to her photography with Nan lounging on the grass while two people lay behind her naked. It reminded me of Nan’s early Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston

Despite being constantly interested in representations of nightlife in art, a lot of Tillmans’s club-related work leaves me feeling cold. However, I do like his Chemistry Square series, photographs of dancers’ faces, and sometimes the back of their heads and necks, in close-up. This seems to capture the sweat-drenched ecstasy of nightlife, definitely more than his video Lights (Body), which documents a spinning disco ball and club lights. I understand what he was going for in that piece: removing the body from club spaces entirely to represent that unique intimacy in a more abstract way, but it’s too simplistic. 

However, if I had to pick absolutely one—or ok, two—photographs to steal to hang in my own apartment, it would be his depiction of rats! Placed ingeniously near John Waters’s portrait, these pictures present a rat in the trash (rat on trashbags) and climbing down a sewer grate (rat, disappearing). And they’d look perfect in my art collection of filth! I don’t have any rat-themed art (yet). Now, that is looking without fear!

Jessica: I liked the Nan and the John Waters too. I loved Waters’s choice of outfit that day–-the terry cloth jacket and the embroidered electric chair execution pillow spice up an otherwise demure portrait. The rats are all yours. Personally, I wouldn’t want any Tillmans in my hypothetical home collection, but I would like to emulate his hang-style if I had that kind of wall space to work with. I liked the video work with boiling frozen peas (Peas) because it is just about the most banal moving image you could conjure up, while also arousing merriment in the hyperactivity of it all. The oscillating peas start to resemble the movement of disco ball lights on walls. I assume he was thinking of Godard’s intergalactic coffee cup. 

Wolfgang Tillmans, Nan reclining, 1996 (photo by Emily)

Emily: I missed the peas, having caught the disco lights instead! That does sound quite delightfully ordinary and fun, the exact opposite of the most baffling inclusions in the show: the tables full of news clippings, otherwise known as Truth Study Center, which was an installation started during the George W. Bush/Tony Blair War on Terror years when Tillmans veered much more overtly political. At MoMA, Tillmans expanded on the original 2005-7 series to a whole whopping 18 tables, which resembled some sort of A Beautiful Mind/John Nash schizo hoarder display. I’ll admit, I didn’t look at these in much detail, but what I did gawk at in passing seemed to be the most facile type of political art imaginable. Just slam together some articles and presto! A potent piece of political art! 

Truth Study Center pairs nicely with works that are quite noticeably absent in To look without fear: Tillmans’s series of pro-EU/anti-Brexit campaign posters, emblazoned with phrases like “What is lost is lost forever” and “This vote is not about bureaucracy. Not about things that don’t work well, that are still flawed. This vote is about our core values, about saying yes or no to democracy, human rights and solidarity. Pick your side.” I’m curious why these weren’t included in the show. Was it because the UK voted the opposite way? I don’t even particularly like the posters, but I think they do take on increased meaning as we look at the UK currently suffering the effects of their kneejerk Leave vote.

There’s something about artists weighing in on overtly political matters that, like loudly partisan celebrities, annoys me. And I’m excited to share that, according to a feature in The New York Times, he’s at least musing about running for office in Germany. Great.

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from September 12, 2022 – January 1, 2023. Photo: Emile Askey

Jessica: The Truth Study Center stuff was hands down dreadful. One review described it as “preachy show-and-tell displays” and another pointed out how it was didactic and moralistic. So there’s consensus on that. It baffled me that Tillmans thought little side notes he made about the date and time span of an event was in any way profound and worth inclusion (for example, “Now 1993 is as long ago as the Civil Rights Act was in 1993”). There’s something solipsistic, or maybe just narcissistic, to think that one’s curated newsfeed is worthy of vitrines. That’s a good point about the posters. Why not include them instead of the news clippings? I was also stunned at the wasted wall space spent on blown-up collaged newspaper clippings of young hot troops in war zones. Tillmans didn’t take those pictures, he wasn’t a war photographer, so why not use all that real estate to show his actual work, such as the magazine covers? That would have been more interesting and insightful, to fully embrace the fashion aspect of his career. That’s how artists practice their craft, through teaching and/or commercial work, and then circling back to their art proper. Why not be honest about it? 

And I want to mention that I do in a way support Tillmans’s desire to enter politics. I believe he is genuine. Perhaps we need more activist-artists turned politicians, especially the most self-serious ones who are stuck in an insufferable loop in their art, like Jenny Holzer and her elaborately lame anti-Trump exhibition commemorating Trump tweets in metal and a swinging LED sign, which was on view at Hauser & Wirth last month. I recall bearing witness to that show and thinking in the midst of it – Emily must hate this!! Had Holzer not read your piece on Barbara Kruger?? To look without wanting to look at more Trump art! Enough already, it’s 2022!!!

Emily: I was also completely confused by the hot troop photos. And flipping through that annoying booklet that MoMA provided rather than wall labels didn’t provide much assistance. I found that impossible to navigate within the show too. But, even once I did read that text, I was unconvinced by Soldiers, The Nineties. Perhaps this speaks to why I just don’t find Tillmans’s work all that compelling. There are other photographers who have taken homoerotic photos of hot troops that are much better. I’m thinking especially of Alvin Baltrop’s photographs of sailors from his stint in the Navy.

And you make a good point about artists going into politics: maybe they should stop making awful preachy political art, put their money where their mouth is, and run! It certainly could not be any worse than people running for office now—or COULD IT? It’s hard to say. That Jenny Holzer show at Hauser and Wirth was such an abomination that I couldn’t even muster up the rage to write yet another article about liberal boomer political art. The Trump Derangement Syndrome lives on! The most ironic thing about that Holzer show is that I think Trump may have been flattered by it! 

Installation view of Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear, on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from September 12, 2022 – January 1, 2023. Photo: Emile Askey

I may just not have any time for strident political exhibitions anymore. And after To look without fear, maybe photography too! I disliked To look without fear so much that I found myself questioning whether the problem may be whether I even like photography as a medium! Part of this has to do with how enamored Tillmans is with photography’s formal qualities, becoming more and more fixated with process, especially his incredibly dry series like paper drops and abstract series like Freischwimmer, made without a camera and heavily resembling eye floaters. Both are dreadfully boring. 

However, that was quickly dismissed when thinking about recent photography exhibitions that I have found riveting like Walter Pfeiffer’s show at the Swiss Institute, who is a clear influence on Tillmans’s work, and the Diane Arbus exhibition at David Zwirner, Cataclysm: The 1972 Diane Arbus Retrospective Revisited. The Arbus show seemed to be exactly what To look without fear claims but isn’t: a celebration of outsiders, weirdos, and freaks. Did To look without fear make YOU want to swear off an entire discipline?

Jessica: Certainly not! Aside from Baltrop, as you notably mentioned, there’s also a William Eggleston exhibition on view at Zwirner right now and it’s very good. Tillmans includes one or two diner pictures reminiscent of Eggleston. It’s almost unfair to compare Eggleston’s old standards of balance and elegance vs. Tillmans’s democratic-whatever standard. I still believe in photography in the sense that I believe not everyone can do it. You’re right about “looking without fear” as being more appropriate to Arbus, given how confronting and provocative her work still is, though I think that’s too sentimental a title to give any show anyway. “My Exhibition” on the other hand, great title for a show…

Installation view of Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition, on view at The Museum of Modern Art, New York from October 30, 2022 – March 4, 2023. Photo: Jonathan Muzikar

Emily: YES! Simple, unpretentious. I enjoyed Meret Oppenheim: My Exhibition, a retrospective of the surrealist artist who is best known for her fuzzy teacup, much more. Unlike To look without fear, My Exhibition didn’t boast grand sweeping claims of radicality or relevance. Instead, Oppenheim’s work just was that. We didn’t need a curator to tell us so in some impenetrable essay

A lot of Oppenheim’s work reminded me of a few artists that have, in recent years, become posthumously popular, namely Greer Lankton and David Wojnarowicz. Oppenheim’s references to the distorted woman’s body through strange objects like Fur Gloves with Wooden Fingers seem to foreshadow Lankton’s emaciated dolls. Even more, there is a photograph in Lankton’s current exhibition DOLL PARTY at Company, RED WOMB, that eerily mirrors a disturbing drawing I was particularly fixated on within My Exhibition, entitled Corpse in a boat. The subject is pretty much what the title describes: a woman’s body, flayed and bloody, in, well, a boat. A nightmare within a drawing. Chilling. But I didn’t just find connection within the ghoulish. Oppenheim’s cosmic works like Star Circled by Twelve Planets held similarities with Wojnarowicz at his most celestial in paintings like Something from Sleep III (For Tom Rauffenbart). 

In contrast to To look without fear, I felt sucked into Oppenheim’s work and lingered for a long time in those galleries.

Jessica: Oppenheim’s work is very much connected to psychoanalytic and occultist ideas, which, as you well know, I’m a sucker for, yet there was no pretension about it. Her version of a Joseph Cornell shadow box, Box with Little Animals, is just a simple wooden box of dried pasta shells arranged like crawling insects. Fantastic! I loved her designs for wearable art: a necklace made of bones and rope, for instance. I loved the bound high heels splayed like a Thanksgiving turkey (Ma gouvernante-My nurse) and, of course, the fur cup and saucer she is most known for. Who but her would have thought of a little ghost eating bread? Who but her would dream of a white marble turtle with horseshoes on its feet, or envision a woman made of stone with Mary Janes and socks on, or render Apollo a potato?! Who but her would play the part of a curtain in the staging of a Picasso play and make all the costumes? It was all so peculiar and whimsical. I want my dreams to resemble hers. 

Meret Oppenheim, Squirrel (Eichhörnchen), 1960/1970, Beer glass, plastic foam, and fur (shitty but necessary photo by Emily)

Emily: Me too! My dreams too often resemble reality. I want to dream up strange little objects like Squirrel, a beer glass with a long plume of a tail. Or beguiling muttering moth-women sculptures like Hm-hm. Dreams were a huge influence on her practice and you didn’t even really need the wall labels to see that. To use a term of praise from David Lynch, Oppenheim’s art is “dreamy.” That is what I look for anymore in art: something that makes me dream (though I know you’re no fan of David’s paintings and I’ll give you that his revolting, thick, beige gun-toting paintings currently at Pace don’t make me dream either). Tillmans’s photography most definitely did not make me dream, but Oppenheim, for sure, did.

Jessica: Indeed. We will never look at squirrels the same way again.

2 thoughts on “Fear and Loathing at MoMA: A Conversation on Wolfgang Tillmans and Meret Oppenheim

  1. Thank you for your authentic, relateable, and thoughtful review. So many “unpretentious” installations seem pretentious to me. I thought it was just me. Love how you broke it down.

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