Lot 29
  • 29

Wolfgang Tillmans

80,000 - 120,000 GBP
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  • Wolfgang Tillmans
  • Freischwimmer #81
  • signed on a label affixed to the reverse
  • c-print, in artist's frame
  • 181 by 238.1 cm. 71 1/4 by 93 3/4 in.
  • Executed in 2005, this work is number 1 from an edition of 1, plus 1 artist's proof.


Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York

Private Collection

Acquired from the above by the present owner 


Colour: The colour in the catalogue illustration is fairly accurate although the overall tonality is cooler in the original. Condition: The work is in very good condition. Close inspection reveals a few scuffs to the left centre of the side edge and lower right-hand corner of the artist's frame. There are also few nicks to the center of the lower edge of the frame.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

“They are photographs made without a camera, purely with light… they evoke all sorts of associations, like skin, or astronomy, or chemicals dissolving, and it’s all done by the brain. It’s what your ‘brain association tool’ creates.”

Wolfgang Tillmans, quoted in: Dominic Eichler, ‘Thinking Pictures’ in: Wolfgang Tillmans and Karl Kolbitz, Eds., Wolfgang Tillmans Abstract Pictures, Ostfildern 2011, 2015 edition, pp. 9-10.


In Freischwimmer #81 delicate skeins of colour ripple and diffuse like pigment dispersed into water. Executed in 2005, this immersive photographic image belongs to Turner Prize winner Wolfgang Tillmans’ mesmeric body of abstract pictures. Created without a camera in a darkroom by exposing photosensitive paper to light and processing the image as you would a colour print, these works embody a riposte to the history of abstract painting suited to the ‘now’ of contemporary image culture. Seemingly antithetical to the artist's unflinching style of candid portraiture, the abstract pictures embody Tillmans' pursuit of non-representational photographic image-making. Though belonging to a larger family of Luminograms – the present work sits within a subset of abstract works known as the Freischswimmer. This title refers to beginner-level German swimming certification and also translates as ‘swimming freely’ – a description that pointedly suits the floating tendrils and lyrical monochrome swathes that give these works their evanescent beauty.

Tillmans is known for creating work with a distinct political and counter-cultural edge. Whether in the form of research table installations of endless news reportage and culled media images, or confronting the politics of vision itself via constellations of heterogeneous intimate portraits or still lifes, he has consistently harnessed the immediately present and momentary through the photographic. The growing predominance of abstract work from the early 2000s onwards therefore appeared in sharp contrast to the artist’s trademark figurative work. Evacuated of content, apart from pure form and colour, the abstract images are ostensibly incompatible with the provocation and immediacy so innate to Tillmans’ approach to image making. Nonetheless, greater consideration of these quietly contemplative and achingly beautiful pieces in fact reveals a range of very specific characteristics and nuances that parallel many of the themes and concerns present in Tillmans’ other projects.

The series of Mental Pictures and Super Collider works echo the artist’s enduring engagement with music and light. These kaleidoscopic works emit a radiance of chemical colour comparable to the robotic light displays that belong to 1990s rave-culture. In a similar vein, Tillmans' first set of Luminograms, entitled Blushes, possess a corporeal delicateness that chimes with the frank close-ups of bare bodies or intimate moments particular to the artist’s portrayal of friends and lovers. Evoking the same tender touch and flush eroticism of naked flesh, the Blushes are visceral pictures that depict human vulnerability and corporeal sensuality outside of recognisable bodily boundaries. The Freischwimmer, although closely comparable to Blushes in form and composition, are even less anchored to narrative concession and more pointedly enigmatic. Instead they possess the plaintive momentariness of Tillmans' candid portraits of unwitting subjects or of the bleached play of sunlight apprehended on a window sill or some corner of his studio – they are replete with the transitory, the notion of time passing, of youth-fading, and of emotions abstracted.

To create the Freischwimmer, Tillmans scanned luminographs, made in a darkroom, into a computer, enlarged them to monumental proportions and presented them as either unframed inkjet prints on paper, or as large framed prints mounted on aluminium as per the present work. They are as heroic in scale as any American post-war painting and just as emotive in formal power; indeed, the present work exudes a smoky elusiveness that takes on the elegiac melancholy of Mark Rothko. Rooted in the photographic and determined by a level of controlled chaos, however, Tillmans’ abstract works are closest in genus to the indomitable precedent of German post-war master, Gerhard Richter. Since the early 1960s Richter’s relentless scrutiny of painting in the photographic age has brought a succession of ground-breaking bodies of work that have redefined what it means to paint in the post-modern era. For the Freischwimmer, it is Richter’s now canonical corpus of Abstrakte Bilder – works famously created by erasing and scraping layer upon layer of oil paint with a large plastic squeegee – that bear a close, yet inverse, similarity: where Richter’s abstract paintings echo the look and feel of photography, Tillmans’ photographs echo the lyrical delicacy of abstract painting. Perhaps extending Richter’s project, Tillmans’ Freischwimmer are inscrutable yet undeniably affecting. They operate on an emotive scale comparable to musical tone and timbre; capable of conveying universal emotion outside of concrete or figurative meaning and recognition.