‘In Freischwimmer there is the most depth in the pictorial space. All associations with liquidity that the image and the name might suggest is made with light and without any liquids or other chemicals. It is important that these are not paintings: as the eye recognizes these as photographic, the association with machine in the head connects them to reality, whereas a painting is always understood by the eye as mark making by the artist’ —W. TILLMANS
‘The formidable size, restricted palette, and smouldering quality of the colour when it turns densest and darkest – all this lends the work a grand and sombre, even elegiac feel. But the work also possesses the elegant lyricism of drawing, albeit without the strenuous carving and chiselling into space that usually results from drawing’s line. Tillmans makes colour and line appear as one indistinguishable substance; instead of colour being confined by and filling in drawn profile, here colour seems to thicken and extend into its own tendriled shapes, arriving at forms and fields that look organically spawned’ —L. RELYEA
‘What connects all my work is finding the right balance between intention and chance, doing as much as I can and knowing when to let go, allowing fluidity and avoiding anything being forced’ —W. TILLMANS
Immersing the viewer in a mesmeric expanse of deep blue, Wolfgang Tillmans’ Freischwimmer 186 lyrically transcends the boundaries between photography, painting and drawing. Working in a darkroom without a camera, the artist directs light onto photographic paper, using his hands as stencils to guide his ineffable medium across the picture plane. Staining the surface like rippling swathes of ink, hair-like tendrils unfold in sinuous formations, veiled by smouldering chromatic clouds that shift in and out of focus. Enlarged to vast proportions, line, colour and space are rendered inseparable, reduced to ephemeral by-products of Tillmans’ hybrid technique. Executed in 2011, the work takes its place within one of the artist’s most important series, examples of which are held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. Though indicative of his increasing turn towards abstraction, these works offer momentary glimpses of figurative reality: underwater kingdoms, galactic voids, smoke, electricity and molecular tissue lurk within their depths. The title of the series – Freischwimmer – eloquently expresses this condition: as images swim freely in our peripheral vision, we are drawn into a volatile world of illusion. ‘I’m always interested in the question of when something becomes something, or not, and how do we know?’, the artist explains (W. Tillmans, quoted at https://artreview.com/features/feature_wolfgang_ tillmans/ [accessed 7 December 2016]). Currently the subject of a major touring retrospective at the Tate Modern, London, Tillmans asks how photography – stripped of its traditional apparatus – can reveal invisible, alchemical states of being that exist beyond the everyday scope of our vision.
Tillmans rose to prominence in the 1990s, initially publishing fashion and club shots in the magazine i-D before going on to become the first photographic artist to win the Turner Prize in 2000. As a teenager, he was fascinated by printed images, and recalls experimenting with a photocopier that could enlarge greyscale photographs in increments up to 400 percent. ‘I became completely fascinated by how this industrially fabricated paper, that has no particular value, could be transformed into a beautifully charged, special and precious object through the touch of a button’, he explains. ‘For me that was a moment of initiation, and the way that I actually came to photography: in the realisation that, apparently, through other means besides my own hands, meaning can be instilled through the mechanics and in the material itself’ (W. Tillmans, quoted at http://uk.phaidon.com/agenda/art/picture-galleries/2014/march/05/the-wolfgang-tillmans-picture-gallery/ [accessed 10 January 2017]). He was deeply influenced by artists who saw the world through screens, including Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol and Kurt Schwitters. As he began to move towards abstraction, his works began to evoke the visual effects of the Colour Field artists, in particular the staining techniques of Morris Louis and Helen Frankenthaler. Despite their painterly qualities, however, the Freischwimmer remain firmly positioned between media. They are photographs made without cameras, drawings made without pencils, pools of colour made without brushes. Deflecting the viewer’s gaze at every turn, they are visions of a world both familiar and strange – one that exists just beyond the limits of our consciousness.