Wolfgang Tillmans, Paper Drop, chromogenic development print, 2001

Though Tillmans is usually hesitant to draw parallels between his photos and paintings, there’s a clear affinity here with Caravaggio—with the flesh of some holy figure emerging from darkness, lit by one low unnatural light source. This may be a secular subject, but it’s treated with a sort of transcendent wonder, as if Tillmans is extolling the transformative power of club culture. Similarly, in the middle of a cluster of photographs of the Hagia Sophia—a towering, imposing ancient cathedral—­Tillmans includes one of a line of patrons waiting outside a Berlin disco, the Snax Club. The artist makes a shrine to personal liberation interchangeable with a more traditional temple.

Tillmans’ critique of people who claim to have a hold on universal truth—Christian fundamentalists, Islamic fundamentalists, creationists—is the basis for Truth Study Center, an installation piece consisting of 23 wooden tables covered with photographs and news clippings. These clippings include stories about the persecution of gays and about the disavowals of scientific facts by Third World leaders. A riot of conflicting voices and ideas are presented. Yet for Tillmans, there are clear correct answers in the cacophony about how to live with one’s fellow humans. Those answers aren’t systematized or readily available, though; they must be discovered, instance by instance, through first-hand contact with the world, and trial and error—in much the same way Tillmans makes art.

Some of Tillmans’ most visually striking images might seem to have the least to do with these sorts of ideas. His abstract pieces are typically experiments with photosensitive papers or shots of these same large glossy rectangles of color hanging, sagging, or warping away from blank white walls. The results can appear crisp, remote, and impersonal. But these large sheets of drooping colored paper, despite their heroic scale, reflect Tillmans’ concern with the existential and ephemeral. The dots and thin tendril-like lines in Freischwimmer 83 (2005), for example, look more like body hair than an ab exer’s automatic drawing—akin to Tillmans’ close-ups of isolated body parts, such as armpits and genitals. In Paper Drop (white) (2004), a piece of glossy white paper cuts diagonally into the frame from the lower right-hand corner into the center, then traces a languid arc up to the top right. The work seems to comment on the pristine white-cube environment of most galleries or about minimalist abstract painting—until you notice how pockmarked and scored the plain white wall filling the rest of the picture is or stop to observe just how subject to the forces of humidity and gravity that subtly curving plane of paper is. These are not timeless images but arrangements that are ready to fly apart, degrade, or vanish at a moment’s notice. They suggest the frailty of stylistic currency and of bodies and a new relationship with abstraction and materials—one that’s more immediate and accessible.

Perhaps Tillmans’ take on abstraction is best revealed in Lights (Body) (2000n2002), a video installation featuring static shots of the light effects inside an empty dance club. Mirrors rotate, casting colored beams of light around the room in time with the bass pulse of the minimalist techno soundtrack. It recalls the early modern light and sound experiments featured in “Visual Music,” the Hirshhorn’s 2005 show on synesthesia. But here Tillmans suggests something far more humble, accessible, and human—this is rigid, spare stuff, but it provides a backdrop for pleasure and self-exploration.

It’s a very tricky balance, playing with the conventions of a shared visual culture—one that tends to value ideas and shorthand notations over messy day-to-day life—but always insisting on the supremacy of sensation, an individual’s unmediated sensuous experience of the world. Tillmans manages it with style and good humor.