It is almost two decades since Wolfgang Tillmans became the first photographer, and non-British artist, to win the Turner Prize, back in 2000. The German, then, is hardly a new name. Indeed, now 48, he is very much in middle age.
Don’t get the wrong impression, though: there’s no cocoa-and-slippers cosiness about his fresh and invigorating new exhibition, arranged across 14 rooms at Tate Modern. Walking through it is like putting your fingers on the beating pulse of now.
Call it a retrospective at your peril: everything about the show, which presents Tillmans’s output using a high-resolution digital camera since 2003, when he had a solo exhibition at Tate Britain, broadcasts his questing, restless desire to innovate and do things differently.
So, with one or two exceptions (towards the end, for instance, we find a gallery of portraits), there are no themed rooms. Instead, in the spirit of his artistic hero Robert Rauschenberg (currently the subject, coincidentally, of another retrospective at Tate Modern), Tillmans delights in thumbing his nose at hierarchies and smashing apart conventions.
He is known, for instance, for his unusual approach to showing work, and here he does not disappoint. Photographs are presented every which way: large, small, high up, low down, above doorframes and windows, squeezed into corners, stuck next to fire escape signs. A few are framed, but most are not. Typically, they’re attached to bulldog clips hanging from tacks. Some are even taped directly to the wall.
The presentation is crucial, because it broadcasts an important message: Tillmans’s art is anything but stuffy or pompous. Rather, it’s all informality and casual flair. At times, he flirts with visual anarchy. But he also subtly corrals the exhibition so that it flows with enviable rhythm.
He is no stranger to art history, either. Walking around, I totted up references to, among other things, Courbet’s Origin of the World (later, there is a corresponding and provocatively blown-up close-up of a naked man’s buttocks and testicles), and the Sleeping Hermaphrodite, a notorious, gender-bending ancient marble statue that Tillmans co-opts as an emblem of his own queer politics.
A vast black-and-white print of a semi-naked male youth, wearing only Adidas shorts, pulling a splinter from his foot restages another famous statue from antiquity, known as the “Spinario”, or Boy with Thorn.
I doubt that many people will get the reference, and fewer still will care – but such allusions suggest that beneath Tillmans’s modishness and freewheeling invention, a solid bedrock underpins his art.
What, then, of the work? Above all, Tillmans is a gorgeous colourist. As befits an artist who made his name in fashion photography during the Nineties, he has a sensuous eye, and can make even the most unremarkable subject, such as the folds of a jacket above a pair of jeans, compelling.
Indeed, his instinctive knack for creating memorably ravishing images is a sort of ocular superpower – the essence of his talent, akin to, say, David Hockney’s exquisite draughtsmanship.
This is evident after the preamble of the exhibition’s opening two rooms (the second of which, focusing on Tillmans’s studio, functions as a composite, introductory self-portrait). The third gallery – hung with seven substantial prints – stops you in your tracks.
Here is a close-up of a glittering car headlight, surrounded by an expanse of glossy red bonnet: automobile bodywork has never looked so sexy. There are the cracked remains of a lavish meal of lobsters: the panoply of oranges, reds, yellows, pinks, creams, and whites provides a succulent visual feast, reflecting the one consumed.
Lest we surfeit, though, a plump black fly – a classic symbol of mortality – strikes a troubling note. There’s that engagement with art history again.
Throughout the exhibition, there are countless instances of similarly lush and sumptuous images. The graceful young man from Jeddah wearing a loose pink robe, leaning against a garish pink car. The brilliant, insouciant toucan, with a curving orange beak. The majestic weed thrusting through the cracks of Tillmans’s London patio with puffed-chest vigour, presented on an epic scale, like a portrait of Napoleon.
Then there are the stunning Blushes – a series of sublime abstract images on which Tillmans has been working since 2000. (Abstraction is an important strand of his artistic DNA.) With startling originality, Tillmans produces their quasi-painterly marks without a camera, by manipulating light directly onto photographic paper.
Elsewhere, he is great on texture, as well as colour. In Dusty Vehicle (2012), desert sand covers a Mercedes like a thick and tactile pelt. In La Palma (2014), foaming waves have the consistency of double cream. Spherical specks of spray levitate in mid-air like a juggler’s balls.
I could go on. But there is another side to Tillmans – and one, I sense, which he encourages deliberately, to temper the facility of his innate gift for image-making, lest people accuse him of producing superficial pictures that appeal only to the eye. And that is his tendency to talk politics.
There are many photos here about war, gender politics and gay rights, the refugee crisis. A smashed-up boat lies wrecked on a beach on Lampedusa. An aerial shot documents the catastrophic effects on Port-au-Prince of the earthquake of 2010.
All this is fine: Tillmans is free, of course, to express his concerns and beliefs. For many people, his crusading political sincerity will only add urgency to work that already feels remarkably contemporary.
Sometimes, though, his political work feels like an exercise in virtue-signalling. Moreover, even his most ardent fans would surely concede the weakness of his “truth study center” installations, featuring itsy-bitsy photographs, clippings from newspapers and magazines, and print-outs of online articles, all presented beneath glass on wooden tables.
Sure, they remind us that the world is horribly violent, divided, and fragile. They also skewer our era of “fake news”. But they have the subtlety of thought of a sixth-form debate, and none of the arresting visual aplomb which won Tillmans acclaim.
By the end, I was also tired of Tillmans’s disruptive aversion to the conventions of retrospectives. He deliberately disregards chronology, by jumbling up different bodies of work, but this means that there is little sense of artistic development.
Consequently, although Tillmans is a sophisticated and supple designer of exhibitions, the final room, for instance, feels similar, in terms of overall tone and effect, to the preceding ones. An exhibition two thirds the size would, arguably, have had more impact.
These, though, are quibbles. Few artists navigate the complexities of the world today with such honesty as well as style, presenting both the dazzle and the muddle of our overloaded modern lives. Tillmans may not be a new name, but he remains a very special talent.
From Feb 15 until June 11; information: 020 7887 8888