Wolfgang Tillmans, at the frontiers of the visible

 Basel  |  26 May 2017  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

As one exhibition concludes, another opens… While the solo show dedicated to German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans is finishing at the Tate in London, the retrospective on him at the Fondation Beyeler is starting up in the Swiss city of Basel. Perfect timing for a closer look at this artist whose experimentations have taken him far and wide…

Contemporary photography – unfortunately – doesn’t always have many superstars to boast about. Even if the medium has achieved recognition in the last decade, its ecosystem still remains closed: it has its own dedicated galleries, themed auction sales, mono-medium fairs, specialised journals… In this respect, Germany’s Wolfgang Tillmans emerges as something of a phenomenon. Earning steady recognition from institutions and art critics from a very early stage in his career, he is already counted amongst the most fashionable photographers… And yet we can sense that this artist still has more tricks up his sleeve.

Born in 1968 in Remscheid in West Germany (near Cologne and Düsseldorf, and therefore also near Europe-focused Belgium and the Netherlands), he discovered the photography of Polke, Richter and Rauschenberg while he was still a teenager in the museums of big neighbouring cities. After three years in Hamburg, Tillmans continued his studies at the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design in South England. He then moved to London before staying in New York for one year in 1994. This is where he met gallerist Andrea Rosen, who would be the first to support him, as well as his lover, painter Jochen Klein. The two Germans would return to Europe where they lived together in the British capital until the death, in 1997, of Klein, a victim of AIDS. Tillmans was not yet 30 at the time.

In 2000, the artist suddenly emerged from obscurity by becoming the first photographer – and the first non-Briton – to receive the very prestigious Turner Prize… one year after Steve McQueen and two years after Chris Ofili. He would be the recipient of another reputed European prize fifteen years later: Sweden’s Hasselblad Award.

An unconditional supporter of silver-halide photography (he develops his negatives himself), his first series were portraits, often in black and white, of his friends Alex and Lutz: Alexandra Bircken (an artist) and Lutz Huelle (a fashion designer). Sometimes shocking, sometimes poetic, sometimes confused, these shots reflect the life that Wolfgang Tillmans himself led during his youth. He thus contributed to a number of magazines with links to the gay, youth and underground scenes, from Germany, the UK as well as the United States: Butt, i-D, Index Magazine, Interview, Spex, SZ Magazin… Publishing house Taschen would also devote a first work to this period early on (in 1995), followed by around thirty more works.

At the twilight of the 20th century, and even more so subsequently, Tillmans would experiment with abstract and aesthetic photographs. These were namely the fruit of multiple experiments carried out in the darkroom, during the development stage: chemical processes, light exposure, mechanical procedures… He was up for trying everything. The artist would thus produce some of his most famous series: Silver (from 1998), Conquistador (since 2000) or Paper Drop (2001). He even went as far as doing without negatives to experiment with the chemistry of the medium itself, as in Freischwimmer, Mental Pictures and Blushes.

In 2009, a small revolution occurred. The artist took his first steps in digital photography before adopting it for good three years later. He described this technology, to German magazine De:Bug, as “completely turning on its head the psychology of photography, which has always been a dialogue between photographer, object and the imaginary image that one is envisioning, thinking, hoping for.” By relying on devices that are continually upgraded, Tillmans also noted that “it’s not just photography, everyone’s become high definition.”

Tillmans would therefore follow the way the world was going and sharpen his eyes to better pin down the transformations of photography and society. His political leanings would also begin to find more blatant expression than mere testimony as the artist began standing up for his views: “no” to the Brexit or else opposition to Trump. As he expressed to Vice, he “wants people to fight fear through artistic expression.” A fine cause indeed!

Parallel to his artistic work, he has, since 2006, devoted part of his time to a non-profit exhibition space called Between Bridges. Initially based in London (until 2011), then in his former studio in Berlin (as of 2014), this space promotes politicised artists who – in Tillmans’ view – aren’t adequately cited in European public debates. In all, more than 20 presentations have been staged, starting with eight poetic and naïve oil works by the late Jochen Klein.


58,000 days on show, or other words 150 years

Wolfgang Tillmans, for his part, has been the object of many exhibitions – a total of over 700! His first solo shows took place in 1994: in New York, at the gallerist who has followed him ever since, Andrea Rosen (one exhibition per year, a total of 22); then in Paris, at Thaddaeus Ropac who has not represented him since. In the same year, Tillmans was also at the MoMA PS1 for the “Winter of Love” exhibition. A promising start to his career.

Ever since, his visibility has continued to increase, up to 2006, when he featured in 45 shows. Since then, Tillmans has oscillated, metronomic style, between 40 and 50 exhibitions per year. And each of them, it has to be said, is presented in a singular manner: the photos aren’t framed but merely printed on paper and pinned on the walls, according to a construction that is uniquely Tillmans’.

Germany is – by far – the country where he has been shown the most (181 times, in other words 25.82%), followed by the United States (123, 17.55%), United Kingdom (61, 17.55%), France (44, 6.28 %) and Italy (41, 5.45%). Most of the time, homage is paid to him by institutions (431, or other words 61.48 %), especially in group presentations (607, for 86.59%). Overall, no less than 58,000 exhibition days have been dedicated to him, in other words 150 years. Not bad for a 49-year-old!

It was also in 1994 that the press started to pay attention to the German artist (he was only 26 years at the time), but it really was from 2000 onwards – and the Turner Prize – that he would regularly be discussed in articles (between 200 and 500 per year since, and even 1,000 last year). In all, over 6,400 articles have been published on him to date (including around fifty by AMA). The media publications that have talked the most about him are the Süddeutsche Zeitung (273 articles), followed by The Guardian (207), Die Welt (190) and The Times (164), reflecting the artist’s two homelands.


The iconic Freischwimmer series

As for auctions, Wolfgang Tillmans’ market is fairly healthy.  He emerged on it for the first time in 1997, in Britain, with the very explicit Lutz Wanking (1992), which found a buyer at £3,200 (€4,700) at Sotheby’s. An honourable score for the baptism by fire of a still unknown photographer. Then, in 1999, came two identical female nudes (Looking at Crotch, 1991), which found owners in two different formats at one month’s interval. The bigger one, at Christie’s, raised $15,000 (€16,000), going above its high estimate of $4,000; the smaller one, at Sotheby’s, went for £1,800 (€2,750) even though its low estimate was £2,000. Not the same outcome at all!

Since the 2000s, several lots have gone on auction – between thirty and sixty per year – with the average price clearly on the rise (multiplied by 11 between 2000 and 2016). Meanwhile, the median price has evolved at a more reasonable pace (going up from €2,000 to a little under €6,000). The works produced between 1992 and 1996 have turned up the most at sales while those produced between 2003 and 2007 (more abstract in their aesthetics) are undoubtedly the most expensive.

Overall, the artist has sold 517 lots out of the 745 placed on offer, creating an unsold rate of 30.2%. His total turnover is €6.1 million with an average price of €22,513 (when excluding the unsold goods; otherwise, €11,750) and a median price of €2,318 or €4,000 (depending on whether unsold goods are counted or not).

The United States and Great Britain are Tillmans’ two strong markets, each generating a turnover of €2.8 million (leaving a sales volume of barely €500,000 for all other countries, including €320,000 for Germany). Phillips is the biggest seller of the photographer’s works, raising €2.2 million (36.7%) for 175 lots presented (134 of which found buyers). Then come the traditional Christie’s and Sotheby’s, which respectively yield €1.7 million and 1,6 million (28.21% and 26.55%) with 134 and 86 lots sold.

Abstract works are by far the most in demand, reflecting the artist’s artistic approach. “It’s the dialogue between abstraction and reality that interests me the most,” confided Tillmans in 2015. The Freischwimmer series (from 2005) is thus positioned 6 times in the artist’s top 10 and also features in his top three results: Freischwimmer 119 (2005), a diptych purchased from the Andrea Rosen gallery sold for £380,000 (€335,000) at Sotheby’s London on 8 March 2017. Meanwhile, number 186 (2011) from the same series sold for £220,000 at Christie’s London on 7 March 2017 – the photo having been acquired from the Chantal Crousel gallery (Paris). Finally, Freischwimmer 120 (2006) went at Phillips New York for $190,000 on 10 May 2016. Similarly, the Paper Drop series (2006-2007) – very aesthetic, pure-lined, quasi-abstract – has twice gone over the €100,000 bar: once at Phillips New York in May 2015, for $120,000 (€105,400), then in November 2016 at Sotheby’s for $150,000 (€140,300).

It’s plain to see, the German artist’s biggest successes are very recent, but at the same time, rooted in the stability of his career in the last 20 years or so… Which bodes for even better things to come. An exhibition at the Tate, a retrospective at the Fondation Beyeler, a number of auction records… 2017 will no doubt go down as the year of Wolfgang Tillmans!




“Wolfgang Tillmans”, until 1 October. Fondation Beyeler, Baselstrasse 101, Riehen/Basel. www.fondationbeyeler.ch


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