Wolfgang Tillmans’ first solo exhibition in San Francisco

In November, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) will present “Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear,” the most comprehensive survey of the artist's work to date and Tillmans’ first solo exhibition in San Francisco.

“To look without fear” offers viewers an in-depth look at the work of Wolfgang Tillmans, charting the development of his practice according to a loose chronology beginning in the 1980s through the present day. Tillmans considers the role of the artist to be, among other things, that of “an amplifier.” He works across every imaginable genre of photography, continually exploring how to make pictures meaningful. From early experiments with a photocopier to his acclaimed portraits, ecstatic images of nightlife, documents of social movements and his cameraless abstractions, the broad range of the artist’s subject matter reveals a steadfast commitment to engage unflinchingly with the world.


Wolfgang Tillmans, “Victoria Park,” (2007); Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong, Galerie Bucholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London.

First organized by The Museum of Modern Art in New York, the survey includes iconic works by Tillmans in photography, video and multimedia installation, a diverse practice united by the artist’s profoundly inventive philosophical approach, sensitivity and desire for human connection.  

The exhibition reflects Tillmans’s distinct approach to presenting his work. “I see my installations as a reflection of the way I see, the way I perceive or want to perceive my environment,” Tillmans has said. “They’re also always a world that I want to live in.” The artist plays an integral role in designing and installing his exhibitions, which feature photographs both framed and unframed, arranged in constellations that extend from floor to ceiling, magazine pages taped to the wall, photocopies, video projections, and tabletop displays. The artist’s attention to the physical manifestation of his work extends from a longstanding investigation of the poetic and material possibilities of the photographic medium.

Visitors to the exhibition will have the opportunity to experience Tillmans’s rarely seen piece “Book for Architects” (2014), a two-channel video installation made from a compilation of 450 images from 37 countries taken by the artist over the course of a decade. On two screens presented at an angle reminiscent of an open book, the work collects Tillmans’s observations of architecture and its relationship to everyday life.


Wolfgang Tillmans, “Icestorm,” (2001); Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong, Galerie Bucholz, Berlin/Cologne, Maureen Paley, London.

Also presented in this exhibition will be the installation “Truth Study Center,” an ongoing project which was first presented by Tillmans in 2005, and brings together his own photographs, clippings, ephemera, and printouts of newspaper and magazine articles arranged on tabletops. In this body of work, Tillmans continually interrogates notions of absolutism while also acknowledging the universal human desire to search for truth. Half of the tables presented in “To look without fear” contain material from 2005–07, while the other half has been composed using recent material.

Since the early 1990s, Wolfgang Tillmans, who was born in Germany, has lived and worked in London, New York, Berlin, Cologne and Fire Island. In a career spanning almost four decades, he has consistently redefined the medium of photography through a seamless integration of genres, subjects, techniques, and exhibition strategies. In addition to his expansive photographic work, his practice extends to include musical recording and songwriting, as well as significant engagements with architecture and design. His foundation, Between Bridges, supports the advancement of democracy, international understanding, the arts and LGBTQ+ rights; previously Between Bridges was a nonprofit exhibition space in London (2007–11) and Berlin (2014–19) directed by Tillmans. Tillmans first visited San Francisco in 1995, and has a deep affection for the Bay Area, making this first solo debut of his work in the city a deeply meaningful endeavor of SFMOMA.  

The exhibition is accompanied by a  scholarly publication, edited by Roxana Marcoci, that offers new perspectives on Tillmans’s work. Published by The Museum of Modern Art, the hardcover catalog includes essays by Marcoci, Clément Chéroux, Keller Easterling and Sophie Hackett that survey major throughlines of the artist’s career, while contributions by Quentin Bajac, Yve-Alain Bois, Julia Bryan-Wilson, Durga Chew-Bose, Stuart Comer, Paul Flynn, Michelle Kuo, Oluremi C. Onabanjo and Phil Taylor engage with specific, focused topics. A prose chronology by Taylor and Andrew Vielkind provides an intellectual biography that contextualizes the artist’s life, and a new text by Tillmans illuminates his philosophy and methodology with regards to printing, paper and the display of photographs. With 400 color illustrations, this visually rich and timely publication tracks Tillmans’s contributions to art in tandem with the social and cultural shifts of the past 30 years.

As SFMOMA Director Christopher Bedford remarks, “Wolfgang Tillmans has for decades explored what it means to engage with our contemporary world through photography. This exhibition offers visitors a full accounting of Tillmans’s boundary-defying artmaking practice, which we anticipate will find relevance in a broad range of audiences. His work challenges the hierarchies that govern where we should look, and reminds us of what we might see if we choose not to look away.”

And, as Tillmans himself once said, “The viewer...should enter my work through their own eyes, and their own lives.”