‘Change in my work happens not in revolutions — it’s more evolutionary’

A guide to Wolfgang Tillmans, the German artist whose photographs, ranging from the elegiac to the everyday, reveal an endless curiosity with modern life. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Portrait of Wolfgang Tillmans. Photo: Mike Wolff / Der Tagesspiegel

Documenting club culture for i-D magazine

Tillmans’ pictures first appeared in the pages of i-D  magazine in 1989. The style and culture magazine’s appropriation of the zine format, its commitment to experimentation, and its promotion of sub-cultures made it a perfect vehicle for a teenage artist who was intent on exploring the meaning and context of his images. Soon, Tillmans was being asked to photograph musicians, actors and other cultural figures and he produced photo stories about club culture in Europe.

Earliest photographs, a Contax SLR, and meeting Maureen Paley

Born in Remscheid in Germany in 1968, Wolfgang Tillmans’ took his earliest photographs of the night sky. When he was 14 he was sent to London on an exchange programme, and quickly discovered Boy George, Silk Cut cigarettes and Kensington Market. His aim, he says of the time, was to ‘go clubbing and meet outrageous people and break out and wear make-up’. 

By the time he turned 18 Tillmans was back in Germany, producing his own fanzines and buying his first camera — a Contax single-lens reflex. Two years later he moved to Hamburg where he began documenting the city’s nightlife, sending the images to i-D  magazine in London. This led to his first exhibition at a small gallery called Café Gnosa. The positive reception to his first show emboldened Tillmans to approach the gallerist Maureen Paley, who has been his gallerist ever since.


The controversial Like Brother Like Sister  photo story was published in i-D Magazine, The Sexuality Issue, No. 110, in November 1992. Credit: Wolfgang Tillmans & i-D magazine

Notoriety for an explicit photo story, Like Brother Like Sister

In 1992 Tillmans photographed his friends, the artist Alexandra Bircken and the fashion designer Lutz Huelle, naked or semi-clothed on the Dorset coast for i-D’s  ‘Sexuality Issue’. The magazine’s UK distributors refused to stock the issue because of its explicit content. 


Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1969), Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees, photographed in August 1992 and printed in 1999. Signed and dated 'photo Aug 92' (on the reverse). C-print.  20 x 14¾ in (50.8 x 37.5 cm). This work is number two from an edition of three. Estimate: £30,000-£40,000. Offered in Masterpieces of Design and Photography on 6 March at Christie’s London

One of the images, Lutz & Alex sitting in the trees, became a defining, if utopian vision of the free-spirited and open-minded generation the artist sought to portray.

Tillmans’ experiments with still life, landscape and abstract imagery

By the early 1990s, having graduated from Bournemouth and Poole College of Art, Tillmans was showing in galleries in London and Hamburg, using the white cube space to challenge perceived notions of what art could be. He exhibited faxes, postcards and printed-up darkroom mistakes, and worked across different artistic genres including still life, landscape and portraiture and abstract imagery.  

‘I found my signature in terms of showing my pictures in a non-hierarchical way,’ he said of the time. ‘It was a very radical thing at the time, to show magazine pages alongside original photographs and to leave the photographs unframed.’

The ‘Blushes’, ‘Mental Pictures’ and ‘Freischwimmer’ works

When asked about how he works and what’s important to him, Tillmans has spoken of ‘being open to what’s there and working in this intersection, interplay of intention and chance, control and coincidence.’ Operating on the border between photography and painting has seen him frequently compared with Sigmar Polke and Gerhard Richter.

Tillmans’ in-depth exploration of the abstract potential of photography began with a number of non-representational group of works, including the ‘Blushes’ and ‘Mental Pictures’ images, both from 2000, and the ‘Freischwimmer’ pictures, inaugurated in 2001, as well as the Griefbar pictures inaugurated in 2014, examples of which can be found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; Tate, London; and the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. 

Wolfgang Tillmans (B. 1968), Freischwimmer 207, executed in 2012. This work is number one from an edition of one plus one artist's proof. Overall: 71⅜ x 93¾ in (181 x 238 cm). Estimate: £180,000-250,000. This lot is offered in Post-War and Contemporary Art Evening Auction on 6 March 2019 at Christie’s in London

Produced entirely in the darkroom, the Freischwimmer  works are created without camera or negative, and are the result of the manipulation of light sources by the artist over photosensitive paper. The title of these works refers to the first certificate awarded to children in Germany when they are learning to swim, but also translates as ‘swimming freely’, which speaks to the fluidity of these pieces. In May 2017 Freischwimmer 102 (above), executed in 2004, sold for $403,500 at Christie’s in New York.

Wolfgang Tillmans (b. 1968), Still Life Grays Inn Road I, photographed in 1999 and printed in 2000. 19⅞ x 23⅞ in. Estimate: £40,000-60,000. This work is one of seven works included in the lot. The print is number one from an edition of three plus one artist's proof. Offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Auction on 7 March at Christie's London

AIDS and Tillmans’ relationship with Jochen Klein

Tillmans is often described as an artist who makes ordinary things look extraordinary, although he would argue the opposite. He believes that ordinary things are extraordinary, if only people would take the time to look at them. 

This hyper-awareness of the world around him is something he attributes to his own sense of mortality; he grew up in the 1980s with the threat of the spreading of the HIV virus, and his lover, the painter Jochen Klein, died from AIDS related complications in 1997. His pictures, however light and joyous, are always made with that reality in mind.

The first non-Brit to win the Turner Prize in 2000

At the time of his win the press described Tillmans as ‘a German-born artist living in Britain’ — a bit of a mouthful, but one that he’s used to now. He won the Turner Prize for an installation of photographs arranged on the gallery walls, an unpretentious aesthetic that has continued. 

His exhibition at Tate Britain three years later was titled if one thing matters, everything matters and reflected this egalitarian vision. ‘In photography I like to assume exactly the unprivileged position,’ he said, ‘the position everybody can take, who chooses to sit at an airplane window or chooses to climb a tower.’

Wolfang Tillmans (b. 1969), JAL, photographed in 1997 and printed in 1997. C-print. 21½ x 14½ in (54.6 x 36.8 cm). This work is number two from an edition of three plus one artist’s proof. Estimate: £15,000-20,000. Offered in the Post-War and Contemporary Art Day Auction on 7 March at Christie’s London 

From Bethnal Green to Berlin: Between Bridges

Between Bridges began in 2006 as a not-for-profit exhibition space in Bethnal Green, East London, before relocating to Berlin in 2014. It is now a foundation devoted to the advancement of democracy, international understanding, the arts and LGBT rights. 

Sign up for Going Once, a weekly newsletter delivering our top stories and art market insights to your inbox

More recently the Foundation has been vocal in its support of the European Union. ‘It’s now the duty of us all,’ he wrote recently, ‘to defend the pillars of the free world order that was created over the last 70 years.’

Related departments

Related lots

Related auctions

Related content