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
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.
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.
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.
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
‘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
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.
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.
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.’
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 today
Christie's Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
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.’