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Wolfgang Tillmans takes over AGO’s fifth floor in major retrospective opening April 7

Expansive site-specific exhibition, his first in Canada, features more than 300 artworks, including images of nightlife, astronomy, architecture, portraits and rarely seen videos


Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear opens at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) on April 7, following a celebrated debut at The Museum of Modern Art, in New York in 2022. A comprehensive survey of the acclaimed German artist’s wide-ranging creative output from the 1980s to the present, the exhibition marks Tillmans’s first major presentation in Canada. Organized at the AGO by Sophie Hackett, Curator, Photography, with Marina Dumont-Gauthier, Curatorial Fellow, Photography, To look without fear was developed by Roxana Marcoci, The David Dechman Senior Curator and Acting Chief Curator, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art with Caitlin Ryan, Curatorial Assistant, and Phil Taylor, former Curatorial Assistant, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art.

An artist who has explored almost every genre of photography imaginable and the first artist working with photography to receive the prestigious Turner Prize, Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968) considers the role of the artist to be that of “an amplifier.” It was a childhood passion for astronomy that prompted his earliest explorations with the telescope, which led him to the photocopier, the video camera and to photography. Four decades later, he continues to address the fundamental question of what it means to create pictures in an increasingly image-saturated world.

Heralded by ARTnews as “one of the year’s finest museum exhibitions”, this comprehensive exhibition of more than 300 works, reveals how since the 1980s, Tillmans has married photographic image-making with social critique, pushed the conventions of the medium, developing new worlds of abstract photography and epitomizing a new kind of subjectivity in photography. Through numerous bodies of work, visitors will encounter ecstatic images of nightlife, sensitive portraits, intimate nudes, documents of social movements and the 2SLGBTQ+ community, investigations of news media, camera less pictures, evidence of our increasingly globalized culture and astronomical phenomena.

Reflecting Tillmans’s ongoing interest in music and performance, the exhibition includes rarely seen video works. The artist’s first full-length album, Moon in Earthlight (2021), will screen in the AGO’s Jackman Hall for visitors to experience sound and image in an immersive audiovisual setting. 

Unique to the AGO presentation is the two-channel video installation, Book for Architects (2014).  A compilation of 450 images from 37 countries taken over the course of a decade, Tillmans presents an extensive body of architectural observations as lived experience; be it a doorbell, a security line-up in an airport, a corner store, or an abandoned high-rise.    

“Tillmans’s work, though personal, is never insular, never divorced from the wider world. What this exhibition highlights is just how tied his photographic observations and experiments are to his notions of community and communion. Through his photographs, Tillmans participates, witnesses and advocates, and shapes a new sense of what’s beautiful, what’s pleasurable and what’s possible,” says Sophie Hackett, AGO Curator, Photography. “Visitors to the exhibition should prepare to feel immersed; to let the volume and beauty of Tillmans’s sustained dialogue with the world lead them on; to feel welcomed into his experiences; and to share his deep sense of playfulness and curiosity.”

Famed for his distinctive display strategies, Tillmans will install the works personally, creating site-specific constellations of images, in loose chronology, on the walls of the fifth floor of the AGO. “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.” Visitors to the exhibition can expect to encounter photographs of varying dimensions – some colour, some black and white – taped to the walls or hung with clips, alongside unframed prints, magazine pages and photocopies.

To look without fear is accompanied by an eponymous 320-page hardcover catalogue, edited by Roxana Marcoci, and a paperback compendium of interviews and texts, co-edited by Marcoci and Phil Taylor entitled Wolfgang Tillmans: A Reader. Published by The Museum of Modern Art, both books are available now from shopAGO, and will be featured alongside a range of exhibition-inspired merchandise, including clothing, totes and posters.

On March 30, 2023, at 7 p.m. Wolfgang Tillmans will deliver the 2023 Rapp Lecture on Contemporary Art in Baillie Court. On Wednesday, April 12, 2023, from 6 to 11 p.m., there will be a free public opening celebration in Walker Court. For tickets and additional programming highlights, visit

Admission to the exhibition is free for all Indigenous peoples, AGO Members, Annual Pass holders and visitors aged 25 and under. AGO Members see it first beginning April 7, 2023. The exhibition opens to Annual Pass Holders and for general admission beginning April 12, 2023.  For more details on how to book your tickets or to become a Member or Annual Passholder, visit

To look without fear will present several bodies of work by Tillmans on Level 5 of the David & Vivian Campbell Centre for Contemporary Art at the AGO.  Organized in a loosely chronological fashion, the placement of these works will be finalized on site during a rigorous installation process. A free exhibition brochure will guide visitors through the exhibition, to identify artworks, and introduce key works, groups and ideas.

Taken in 1986, at the moment when a teenage Tillmans was first experimenting with laser photocopiers, the artist describes Lacanau (self) as his first self-portrait and his first abstract picture. This, like his other self-portraits, is evidence of his ongoing interest in positioning himself within the world as he experiences it. “It was like coming out to myself as an artist,” he has said of the work.

Tillmans’s interest in new technology, traceable to his childhood fascination with astronomy, led him to experiment with the telescope, then the photocopier, video camera and photography. Often enlarging images up to 400 percent, Springer (1987) features a diver dramatically suspended mid-air as he plunges between craggy cliffs. The image appears twice: as the original letter-sized photocopy of a photograph, and later as an enlarged inkjet print, techniques that create the unique mix of degraded and enhanced details. 

That same determination to expand the limits of photographic materials and techniques, is an ambition that aligns with his fascination with electronic music. Highlights of his longstanding interest in music and performance are evident throughout the exhibition, including the portrait, made for Interview magazine in 1995, of the legendary DJ Joanne Joseph — better known by her stage name, Smokin’ Jo — and wall of speakers (1992), an image made on a trip to Kingston, Jamaica, where Tillmans photographed the local ragga music scene. This image captures an outdoor festival’s precariously stacked sound system, depicting the structure as both a sculptural object and a means of experimentation capable of producing thunderous bass sounds.

Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees (1992) and Chemistry Squares (1992), both published in the British alternative magazine i-D in the early 1990s, are two examples of the images that brought Tillmans to prominence as a chronicler of youth subculture and nightlife. The persistent presence of magazines in Tillman’s exhibitions is indicative of the power he sees in images to convey ideas, and in media to spread them.

In the photographs he calls Faltenwurf (German for “drapery”), clothes hang drying on radiators, are crumpled into balls, or lie in heaps, alluding to drawn and painted studies of fabric.

Beginning in the late 1990s, Tillmans became increasingly invested in the possibilities afforded by darkroom abstraction, developing new techniques, such as applying coloured tints and using flashlights to manipulate an image as it was exposed. In his monumental I don’t want to get over you (2000), a title inspired by the lyrics of a song by the Magnetic Fields, gestural green streaks and dark, thread-like lines fuse with the image of a vast, blue sky, heralding a new, albeit uncertain, day.

Tillmans’s video work — an under-recognized facet of his practice — brings together movement, electronic music, ambient sound, technology and quotidian imagery. In Instrument (2015), a single-channel, split-screen projection, visitors encounter the artist in two ways – dancing to the beat his own feet make on the floor, and as a shadow cast on the wall – making his body an instrument of image and sound.

Echoing his previous attention to the ways that queer and techno subcultures had adopted camouflage and utility wear, Soldiers: The Nineties (1999), is an installation of enlarged newspaper photographs featuring soldiers engaged in acts of leisure, such as smoking, casually sitting, or playing chess. Front page fodder during a decade when Cold War tensions eased, and thousands of military personnel were deployed in peacekeeping missions, Tillmans was intrigued by the prominence of these images, their seeming ubiquity at a moment of purported peace, as well as the erotic undertones of these photographs of anonymous, occasionally bare-chested servicemen.

Tillmans first created a body of work called paper drops after he acquired an industrial-sized printer in 2001 and began experimenting with the optical effects of gravity, which allowed the paper to freely bend and curl. “For me, the photo has always been an object,” Tillmans has said.

The manipulated colour fields of the Lighter (ongoing since 2005) works expand upon this dynamic. Made without a camera, the photographic paper is either folded in the darkroom or exposed to evoke the effects of folding, and then framed in Plexiglas. The Silvers (ongoing since 1992) are also camera less works made by feeding photographic paper through a developer that Tillmans has purposely not cleaned, allowing interferences of dirt and traces of silver salts be visible.

First presented by Tillmans in 2005, the installation Truth Study Center, brings together his own photographs, clippings, and printouts of newspaper and magazine articles inside wooden display cases. Tillmans introduced this tactic to question notions of absolutism—whether it be the Bush Administration’s claims of weapons of mass destruction to justify the war in Iraq or religious dogma in any form—while also acknowledging the universal human desire to search for truth. Half of the tables in this room contain material from the early 2000s installations while the other half has been composed using recent material. 

Between 2008 and 2012, Tillmans embarked on a major new project that coincided with his adoption of a digital camera. Comprising portraiture, still life, landscape, street photography, and architectural studies, Neue Welt (“New World”) observes the flows of finance, commodities, and people around the world.

Shown alongside these works, are documents of social movements that Tillmans believes in. Made for the magazine i-D in 1996, among the earliest examples of this, are his atmospheric images of the Berlin Love Parade. In the early 2000s, he created images for an HIV/AIDS education campaign on behalf of South Africa’s Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) and the UK’s HIV i-Base and most recently he captured the outstretched hands of protest in New York City, in Black Lives Matter protest, Union Square, b (2014).

Exploring what he terms ‘audio photography’, Tillmans’s first full-length album, Moon in Earthlight (2021) was produced primarily during the pandemic. The 53-minute album incorporates spoken word, ambient field recordings, and pulsating electronic beats, emphasizing the performative nature of music and its status as a preeminent force that brings people together.

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Born in 1968 in Remscheid, Germany, Wolfgang Tillmans studied at Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in Bournemouth, England, from 1990 to 1992. Relentlessly pushing to find ways to make new pictures in our image-saturated world, Tillmans has, throughout his career, explored and integrated photography’s many genres, techniques and presentation strategies.

In 2000, Tillmans was the first photographer and first non-British artist to receive the Turner Prize, an award given annually by Tate in London. In recent years, Tillmans has been more directly involved in political activism. In tandem with his ongoing Truth Study Center project (begun in 2005), he has created posters for the anti-Brexit campaign in Britain and in response to right-wing populism in Germany. Fragile, a major touring solo exhibition of the artist’s work, opened in 2018 at the Musée d’Art Contemporain et Multimédias in Kinshasa, with the final stop taking place at Art Twenty One and CCA, Lagos in 2022.

Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear is organized by The Museum of Modern Art.

The exhibition is generously supported by:

Supporting Sponsor

Generous Support
Carol & Morton Rapp
The Schulich Foundation
Eleanor & Francis Shen
Jay Smith & Laura Rapp
George Yabu & Glenn Pushelberg

The AGO acknowledges the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear is presented in collaboration with the Scotiabank CONTACT Photography Festival

Located in Toronto, the Art Gallery of Ontario is one of the largest art museums in North America, attracting approximately one million visitors annually. The AGO Collection of more than 120,000 works of art ranges from cutting-edge contemporary art to significant works by Indigenous and Canadian artists to European masterpieces. The AGO presents wide-ranging exhibitions and programs, including solo exhibitions and acquisitions by diverse and underrepresented artists from around the world. The AGO is committed to being welcoming and accessible: admission is free for anyone under 25 years, and anyone can purchase an annual pass for $35. In 2022, the AGO began the design phase of an expansion project intended to increase exhibition space for the museum’s growing modern and contemporary collection. When construction begins in 2024, it will be the seventh expansion that the AGO has undertaken since it was founded in 1900.  Visit to learn more.

The AGO is funded in part by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. Additional operating support is received from the City of Toronto, the Canada Council for the Arts and generous contributions from AGO Members, donors and private-sector partners.

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