Remscheid, West Germany
Summary of Wolfgang Tillmans
Wolfgang Tillmans proclaims that he makes "Pictures, in order to see the world." But what he really does is utilize the medium of photography to increase our attentiveness of the world around us. He originally found fame through his photos for the seminal fashion and culture magazine i-D, in which he illuminated his LGBT+ lifestyle within the UK youth club and nightlife scene in ways that made gay life accessible to the mainstream. But he would go on to experiment with the medium of photography to expound upon the concepts of "seeing" in new ways to jostle us from the habit of taking things for granted, or at merely face value, oftentimes highlighting political and social issues that were of particular concern to him. Today, his work is known for taking the shocking or the marginalized and making it matter of fact through the simple act of exposure. He avoids ascribing any conclusions to his work and thus subjects his photographic vision to a perpetual re-contextualization.
- Tillmans' diverse body of work encompasses a wide array of photographic practices yet the common theme that weaves throughout is a distinguishable ongoing investigation of his own surroundings and concerns at any given moment. He has said, "I myself felt not represented by the photography around at the time, so I had to make my own language and codes to express what life felt like to me."
- Tillmans' photographic practice ranges across a wide array of genres. Yet his portraits, still lifes, sky photographs, astrophotography, aerial shots, and complex installations are all equally motivated by aesthetic and political interests, particularly in relationship to homosexuality and gender identity.
- Tillmans also maintains a strong studio practice that encompasses both darkroom and digital experimentation. This practice, working with material, chemicals, equipment, paper, and light continues to allow for elements of surprise in his ongoing investigation of image structuring and restructuring.
- Continuing to use his own life as a basis for art, Tillmans' interests have allowed for creative forays extending beyond the photographic and into the worlds of music and video, in which he often collaborates with friends.
Progression of Art
Lutz & Alex Sitting In the Trees
Fresh out of Bournemouth College of Art and Design and newly residing in London, Wolfgang Tillmans made a series of portraits of his lifelong friends Lutz and Alex in various states of undress. Ambivalent and laconic, Lutz & Alex sitting in trees depicts the androgynous couple sitting naked on tree branches, each donning wide open raincoats revealing their bare chests. It questions gender and sexuality without fully acknowledging either. As Liz Jobey described for The Guardian, "As a couple they look naive yet knowing, an Adam and Eve for the ecstasy generation."
While the photograph seems oddly candid, Tillmans claims otherwise, "the reality was there and it was put there." It questions the way artists approach fine-art photography, eschewing conceptions of naturality by employing the techniques of fashion photography to everyday subjects. They are, "re-enactments of potentially real situations"
Tillmans challenged conceptions about fine art photography and blurred the lines between photographic naturalism and studio photography, influencing a new generation of photographers like Alec Soth. In doing so, photographs like Lutz & Alex sitting in trees helped define contemporary culture of the 90s.
truth study center
Reacting to the Iraq War and the presidency of George W. Bush, truth study center explores the quagmires of Western neoliberalism and religious fundamentalism with "photocopies of erroneous information, juxtaposed with political texts written with great analytical clarity," and, "absurdities, humour and photographs of religious and everyday situations." Part lab and part archive, Tillmans "was driven by the realisation that many global problems have resulted from false proclamations of absolute truths," as he described in an editorial written for the Guardian in 2018. By combining a wide variety of mediums, he constructs a scenario that depicts and analyzes this tendency, while also, by extension, diagnoses it.
The work has been shown in different venues, each time containing new content, each incarnation lending a slightly different focus. In this way, the work has grown along with the proliferation of "fake-news" and tries to more adequately confront this phenomenon. Most recently, the piece has morphed into book form as What Is Different. It confronts the idea of the "backfire effect," in which a person is shown evidence against one of their beliefs, but becomes more convinced in their falsehood rather than changing their viewpoint.
This work is an extension of Tillmans' earlier groundbreaking installations of taped prints and pinned magazine spreads, but goes a step further by taking the work off the wall, displaying art as artifact, and in doing so shifting our perception of the work as visual evidence. Tillmans mixes more than mediums with truth study center, he mixes disciplines, creating a new approach to art and study which expands the opportunity for understanding. The viewer is an invited into this experiment, making their own connections and conclusions, becoming a participant in the lab, and flattening the hierarchies between objects, an extension of Tillmans 2003 aphorism, "If one thing matters, then everything matters."
Installation of photographs, texts, clippings, pamphlets, and other mixed media
paper drop (window)
In paper drop (window), we see a sheet of photo paper curled over itself, almost unidentifiable, illuminated with green light reminiscent of the sea, and pierced at the center by cool white light. From the title, we can assume this light is an open window, but it is not defined as such by any other indicators. The single sheet of photo paper is carefully rendered as sculptural - possessing weight - but returned to the picture plane, made flat by being photographed.
Tillmans has always had an ambivalent relationship with photography. His work began on photocopiers, and part of his practice has always been looking at ways to circumvent the camera. In 2001, Tillmans returned to this kind of process-based image making, experimenting with creating "cameraless photographs" by letting the silver salt stains and dust of a dirty processor create, "a picture not of anything in the world, but a picture of its own making." Later, he would project colored light onto bent and curled photo paper then develop the results into dreamy, Mark Rothko-like fields of color. Ultimately, this would lead to the paper drop series where he would inverse the process of photography by photographing darkroom paper folded and lit by colored lights, recording light sensitizing paper rather than the imprint left by light on the sensitized medium.
Tillmans questions and reaffirms our expectations of photography in the same work. It is abstract, but still representational, utilizing traditional photographic materials to make a sculpture that is then made back into a photograph; a meta execution of photography, self-referential and recursive. These processes question the subjectivity of photography and reaffirm the expressive qualities of the medium. They also position Tillmans as a Conceptual artist, not just a great seer, in his, "taking a very flimsy, fleeting little idea, grabbing hold of it, and taking it seriously."
Astro Crusto is a vivid portrayal of pinks, oranges, and reds - sublime in their saturation - contrasted with the purest white. Only the large fly reminds you that the image depicts a half consumed lobster in a display of decadence and lavishness.
After his intense experimentation with light and paper, Tillmans shifted his focus to still lifes, imagined reverentially as altars. Ordinary, everyday objects are depicted with an almost divine importance where their colors and textures are tightly cropped to maximize a sensual effect.
"There are still many misconceptions about what I do," Tillmans opines, "that my images are random and everyday, when they are actually neither. They are, in fact, the opposite. They are calls to attentiveness." This image reminds us to be present in our relationship with the world; the strongest moments are actually a strange mix of the sensual and the surreal, and often subtly political.
shit buildings going up left, right, and centre
In this image of a sunny city street, we see two figures dwarfed by the enormous magnitude of new construction. Each building is a matrix of itself, endlessly repeating toward the top of the page: a quiet picture, engaging in its repetition and compression. Yet, Tillmans bluntly characterizes his feelings with the title shit buildings going up left, right, and centre, a direct attack against the unfeeling world of development, globalization, and gentrification. The title is so blunt, in fact, that our reading of the image can never quite be divorced from it.
The photograph represents the moment in which Tillmans concisely combines the acuteness of his eye and a commitment to progressive politics with an unflinching vision. It synthesizes the need for art to be political while still being expressive in a deftly executed photograph. Proceeding from this point, Tillmans became highly engaged with the political readings of his work, setting the course for his mature practice.
arms and legs
Arms and legs takes the intimate act of a man reaching into another man's shorts and depicts a beautiful choreography of limbs. The closely-cropped arrangement is nearly abstract, but gestural enough to leave no mistake about what is taking place. Instead of being graphic, the image is comfortable, natural and nowhere pornographic. The image becomes an amalgamation of elbows and knees and of the saturated rippling of shorts around a fist, depicting gay love with a tender beauty. Yet, it does not sensationalize - nor trivialize through pornography - but instead normalizes the act. It works as a political work of Identity Politics, but also shows Tillmans' questioning of the role and history of the fine art photograph by taking an intimate act and turning it into an abstraction.
By exploring the vulnerability of his own friends within the marginalized LGBT+ lifestyle, Tillman's work served to normalize queerness for the masses.
Inkjet Print and clips
Biography of Wolfgang Tillmans
Born in the small manufacturing town of Remscheid in West Germany, Wolfgang Tillmans had a quiet childhood marked by visits to the Museum Ludwig in Cologne where he first saw the work of Gerhard Richter, Robert Rauschenberg, and Sigmar Polke. In 1983, after a stint as a foreign exchange student in England, he became enamored with British Youth culture. Within its welcoming atmosphere, he found the encouragement to come out as gay in 1984. By the next year, he had already had his first AIDS scare. "That's actually crazy," he said recounting the experience, "when you think of a 17-year-old schoolboy lying in bed thinking he's going to die."
In 1988 Tillmans chose to do community service in Hamburg rather than serve a mandatory stint in the military. There, Tillmans began to make art using the photocopier in the office he worked at as a switchboard operator. His first attempts were at enlarging images until the grain of the photographs overtook the picture. He organized his first show of prints while working at the call center, eventually catching the attention of curator Denis Brudna who invited him to be a part of a large exhibition. While in Hamburg, Tillmans became ensconced in the party scene and began, "to go out tons and take ecstacy." Inspired by the magazine i-D, he bought a flash and started taking pictures. i-D published the photographs and shortly thereafter other magazines began commissioning him to document the club scene of Germany.
Early Training and Work
In 1992, once his community service was complete, Tillmans moved to the UK and attended the Bournemouth and Poole College of Art and Design. There, he met gallerist Maureen Paley who invited him to show one of his photographs at an unofficial art fair in Cologne. Interested in attending the i-D party, Tillmans accompanied Paley to install his print. At the party, Galerie Buchholz asked to do a show based upon the strength of his work with i-D. The show was a mix of unframed photographs and magazine spreads - "a very radical thing at the time" - which broke from the hierarchies of normal gallery practices. The installation was an instant success. Tillmans sold his first piece to artist Isa Genzken which led him to be introduced to Benedikt Taschen, head of the publishing house Taschen. They became friends, initiating a long relationship in which the publishing house would present Tillmans' work.
In 1994, Tillmans moved to New York City where he met and fell in love with the painter Jochen Klein. The two lived together until Klein's untimely death in 1997 from an AIDS-related complication. Although Tillmans was also HIV positive at this time, it was something he had only briefly alluded to in his work. For instance, in his 2014 photograph "17 Years' Supply," he depicted a box full of HIV medication, many of the bottles bearing his own name. He only recently went public about his condition. Klein's death left Tillmans alone and adrift and his work took an experimental turn, focusing on darkroom experiments. Simultaneously, his professional career blossomed, most famously when he shot Kate Moss for US Vogue in 1997. By 2000, Tillmans was awarded the Turner Prize, the first photographer, first non-British artist, and, at 32, the youngest recipient of the award.
By 2003, the War in Iraq had pushed Tillmans' work into the political realm. For Maureen Paley's gallery Interim Arts, he made truth study center, a three-dimensional installation of photographs, articles, and notes foreshadowing the proliferation of "fake news" that examined the public's relationship to truth and how the media can shape it. Permutations of this piece would feature prominently in the TATE's retrospective of Wolfgang's work in 2017 and are still a major preoccupation in his current work, often tinged with sarcastic or political titles, suggesting or leading the viewer to make a political stand.
In 2016, he campaigned against Brexit, producing political posters featuring his photographs that appeared all over England urging voters to remain in the European Union. Since Jochen Klein's death in 1997, Tillmans has kept his life private but has been more open about his experience living with HIV, focusing much effort into promoting LGBT+ causes.
Tillmans' life in the club scene helped feed his lifelong passion for music and sound. He often commented upon the lack of exhibition space for music, in which a song could be heard in perfect quality just as a painting could be experienced in a perfect gallery setting. 2016 saw the artist's first foray into electronic music with his extended play record (EP) "Make It Up As You Go Along". Following similar themes and inspirations as his photographic, lifestyle works, much of Tillmans' music is a mixture of '80s synth pop, druggy trance, and minimal techno. He sings in English and German with lyrics surrounding queerness, homophobia, and other contemporary political concerns alongside experimental sounds. Shortly after his first EP, he released "Device Control," which found its way into singer/songwriter Frank Ocean's visual album "Endless". The sampling led to a friendship between the two artists and Tillmans shot the cover photograph for Frank Ocean's follow up album "Blonde". In one of his latest works, Tillmans combined music and video, producing the visual album "Fragile" that premiered at Maureen Paley gallery. He has also collaborated with longtime friend and musician Billie Ray Martin whom he met in 1997 while working for i-D.
The Legacy of Wolfgang Tillmans
Wolfgang Tillmans will always be remembered for his work with the magazine i-D, documenting the UK club scene of the late 80s and early 90s. But he has also used his status in the art world to represent gay life and to become a vocal supporter of the LGBT+ community. His proposal was chosen for the AIDS memorial in Munich and through his work he depicts normalized images of queer life building a visual vocabulary for the queer vernacular, codifying and normalizing it's appearance in artwork.
His installation style has helped dismantle the hierarchies of exhibition in the art world, insisting on the equal value of objects outside formal framing and traditional display methods. The continuing relationship Tillmans has with publisher Taschen has contributed to the importance of books as a historical transmission medium for photography and a valid space to further push the medium.
Tillmans has also opened an arts non-profit to serve underappreciated artists and to speak to contemporary issues including LGBT+ rights and the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe. Originally founded in London, the space now operates out of Berlin and allows Tillmans to address topics more directly than he can through his work, shaping the political discussion in the art world.
His political agenda is also given voice through his musical career. His association with Frank Ocean has further expanded Tillmans influence over the "Instagram generation" whose photographic sharing of their private lives is often reminiscent of Tillmans ability of looking, "in an open, unprejudiced, fearless way at the world around you."