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Wolfgang Tillmans Photo

Wolfgang Tillmans - Biography and Legacy

German Photographer

Born: August 16, 1968 - Remscheid, West Germany

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.

Mature Work

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."

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Content compiled and written by Egon Schiele

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols

"Wolfgang Tillmans Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Egon Schiele
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Kimberly Nichols
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First published on 16 Sep 2019. Updated and modified regularly
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