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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Art to the Editor

The German-born, London-based artist Wolfgang Tillmans is one of the most recognized and successful photographers in the contemporary art world. His eclectic subject matter ranges from pop-like portraiture and the celebration of youth culture to serene landscapes and gracefully haphazard still lifes (see Kitchen Still Life at right.)

His seemingly effortless renovations of such traditional genres can currently be seen in a rather bland display at Harvard University’s Busch-Reisenger Museum in Cambridge. “Wolfgang Tillmans: Still Life” (the first museum exhibition of the artist’s photography in the United States,) attempts to bring Tillmans’ topical explorations to the cool, academic indifference of the museum world.

Tillmans, who had no hand in the presentation or format of the show, normally pins his photographs (rather than hanging them in frames) across the gallery walls, allowing the various-sized images to overlap one another here and there, creating a kinetic and engaging composition that transcends the confines of the gallery space.

This chaotic, yet pleasing arrangement, which is lost in the Harvard show, is true to the aesthetic preferences of the youth that Tillmans presents to us, in that it resembles the way his generation tacks up movie and music posters, or glossy snapshots of friends and family.

Walking through the Busch-Reisenger Museum’s revolving gallery where Tillmans’ show is hung, one gets the feeling of “textbook Tillmans.” Each photograph is hung in a straight line, from right to left, in an easy to follow, schematic progression: “Tillmans A, Tillmans B, Tillmans C,” and so on. It’s almost as if the artist was dead, and this sterile, out-of-touch show was put together many years after the fact in a weak attempt to posthumously catalogue the artist piece by piece.

The problem is that Tillmans’ work emphasizes the quotidian, the everyday. The simple, honest beauty of his content, juxtaposed with his outrageous display tactics is what makes Tillmans Tillmans.

However, there are still some beautiful pictures there, and the clinical approach Harvard chose to dissect Tillmans can be overlooked. Unfortunately, museum curators tend to become more involved with their shows than they need to, and some of the artist’s original message is lost.

What we are left with in the Buisch-Reisenger show are some beautiful specimens, perfectly arranged in scientific rows, like butterflies in an album. However, the unique vitality, and frenzied energy of the Tillmans look is nowhere to be seen.

“Wolfgang Tillmans: Still Life” will be up at the Busch-Reisenger Museum until February 23rd, but Wolfgang Tillmans will be seen in many more inspired shows for years to come -hopefully.