A chronicler of youth and culture

A life is on display on the walls of the Museum of Contemporary Art, a story full of mundane moments, pictures of friends, memories that loom large and the news events that shaped it.

The exhibit, which runs until Aug. 13, is the first major retrospective of German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans to appear in an American museum. A chronicler of youth and counterculture, he has been called one of the most significant artists of the 1990s. His work has appeared in museums across Europe and Asia and in Vogue magazine.

"The whole multifacetedness of my experience wasn't represented and I wanted to do it in a fearless way," Tillmans said.

A sign outside the gallery warns parents that they may wish to preview the exhibit before bringing their children in. Tillmans spent a week at MCA installing his 300 photographs and he left little separation between family-friendly pictures of the moon partially concealed by clouds and the descriptively titled "man pissing on chair."

For Tillmans, the installation can be the most important part of his work. No two of his shows are displayed the same way and the size of the works vary wildly, from postcard images to oversized posters sometimes arranged on top of each other in a way that can make viewers have to crane their necks to see. Some of the photos are taped to the wall, others held up by paper clips. None of the pictures have labels, which Tillmans finds visually distracting.

"All my work is about single images," Tillmans said. "I want to find out what that single image does in the larger world."

The installation displays an incredible breadth of work including numerous very casual portraits of Tillmans' friends, shots of everyday objects, abstract works using exposed film to create blurs of bright color and news clippings that involve issues that Tillmans is interested in. For Tillmans, who is gay, these often focus on politics and gay rights. At the MCA there's a heavy emphasis on news about the Iraq war.

"I've got many friends [in America] so I wanted to bring my work here, but at the same time I wanted to acknowledge that there are problems here that in the art world get expressed very little," Tillmans said. "How can you acknowledge that without being the foreigner teaching Americans how to think? That is something no one likes, but especially not Americans."

Tillmans is best known for his portraits, including the series of photos of Kate Moss he did for Vogue. He said he's pleased that people are often surprised by his abstract work.

"The moment you establish something as your own, if you just go along with that without questioning yourself, it becomes just another thing that does not question the viewer," Tillmans said.

Tillmans said all of his art, not just the part classified as abstract, is experimental. He said he's never certain exactly what the result will be whether he's using light to expose film or taking a picture of a friend holding a cat. He loves seeing the work develop both on paper and in the minds of his viewers.

"There is not one thing to get from the work," Tillmans said. "The greatest pleasure I get from the work is when someone tells me 'It made me feel this' or 'I know what that smells like.'"

Suggested admission is $10 for adults and $6 for students and children.