Wolfgang Tillmans - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session New York Wednesday, November 16, 2022 | Phillips

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  • "I see myself using photography in the way any artist looks at the world with the means of his or her own time."
    —Wolfgang Tillmans

    Ethereally unfolding itself in front of the viewer with epic gravitas, Wolfgang Tillmans’ Greifbar 27 presents a majestic panorama of simultaneously infinite and microscopic space. Executed in 2014, the work represents a key touchstone within Tillmans’ acclaimed practice. As part of the Freischwimmer series, Tillmans here uses light to form arabesque-like lines–creating an atmospheric image that is electrified by undulating black and deep blue lines that crest like waves across the glowing field. Epitomizing the Turner Prize winner’s over three-decade long engagement with the materiality of photography, Greifbar 27 notably comes to auction at the same time as the artist’s widely acclaimed solo exhibition Wolfgang Tillmans: To look without fear at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.



    As Jason Farago writes in his review of Tillmans’ show at the Museum of Modern Art for The New York Times, “His most powerful response to this century’s explosion of images has been the cameraless “Freischwimmer” abstractions, begun in 2003. So beautiful, these pictures: grand, streaky expanses of color, suggesting bodies or currents, made by exposing photosensitive paper to lasers and other hand-held lights.”i Though Tillmans has remained somewhat elusive about the exact process behind the creation of his camera-less works, he describes these pictures as belonging to certain “families,” grouped together based on the specific techniques used in their making. Tillmans’ camera-less works are all executed in the darkroom without the intermediary of a lens. While evoking aquatic and liquid associations, Tillmans has emphasized that “the name [Freischwimmer] doesn’t relate to the fluids used in the production…These are images that I create with my hands and with tools that emit light.”ii


    Drawing With Light

    Whereas Tillmans exploited the properties of mineral-chemical reactions in his abstract Silver series, here he plays with the light sensitivity of photographic paper. In doing so, he takes the etymology of the word “photography,” derived from the Greek, “draw with light” as a literal point of departure. Expanding upon the photogram experiments of László Moholy-Nagy, Man Ray and György Kepes, Tillmans uses a light pen to skillfully manipulate light as though it were painterly pigment. At the same time, he characteristically allows for the element of chance to enter his composition. As Tillmans has commented, “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.”iIi

    While evocative of William J. Turner’s existential landscapes, Greifbar 27 remains resolutely abstract– conjuring a mental, rather than literal, state of mind as it pushes the limits of visibility. Enlarged to monumental scale, the photographic work teases the eye with the promise of revelation. Whereas enlargement traditionally reveals detail, here precisely the opposite is engendered. Encouraging the gaze to wander, our perception begins to swim to an illusionary place where nothing is conceptually defined. 
    "These are images that I create with my hands and with tools that emit light."
    —Wolfgang Tillmans
    Greifbar, meaning tangible, reflects the artist’s reference to figuration in the series of abstractions. The thin strands of intensive color extend across the lighter background. Varying in their sharpness, they enhance the viewer’s perception as they attempt to focus. The first work from the titled series, Greifbar 1, notably won the artist the prestigious Wooliston prize at the Royal Academy’s summer exhibition in 2014. A later work from the consecutively numbered series, Greifbar 29 adorned the cover of Tillmans’ widely acclaimed 2017 solo exhibition at Tate Modern in London. Reflecting on these works, Tillmans does not aim to depict reality, rather “It's about the transformation that conceptual photography and conceptual art have in common: the transformation of a thought.”iv


    i Jason Farago, “The Disappearing World of Wolfgang Tillmans,” The New York Times, September 8, 2022, online
    ii  Wolfgang Tillmans, quoted in "Interview with Wolfgang Tillmans," Vernissage TV, June 17, 2014

    iii Wolfgang Tillmans, quoted in Dominic Eichler, “Look, Again,” Frieze, no. 118, October 2008, online

    iv Wolfgang Tillmans, quoted in Susanne Schreiber, ”Die Idee der Schönheit ist politisch,” Handelsblatt, July 13, 2017, online

    • Provenance

      Courtesy of the Artist
      Terre des Femmes Charity Auction, Berlin, April 18, 2016, lot 23
      Private Collection (acquired at the above sale)
      Phillips, London, March 8, 2018, lot 3
      Acquired at the above sale by the present owner

    • Artist Biography

      Wolfgang Tillmans

      German • 1968

      Since the early 1990s, Wolfgang Tillmans has pushed the boundaries of the photographic medium. Challenging the indexical nature traditionally associated with photography, his abstract and representational photographic bodies of work each in their own way put forward the notion of the photograph as object—rather than as a record of reality. While achieving his breakthrough with portraits and lifestyle photographs, documenting celebrity culture as well as LGBTQ communities and club culture, since the turn of the millennium the German photographer has notably created abstract work such as the Freischwimmer series, which is made in the darkroom without a camera.

      Seamlessly integrating genres, subject matters, techniques and exhibition strategies, Tillmans is known for photographs that pair playfulness and intimacy with a persistent questioning of dominant value and hierarchy structures of our image-saturated world. In 2000, Tillmans was the first photographer to receive the prestigious Turner Prize.

      View More Works


Greifbar 27

signed and numbered "Wolfgang Tillmans 1/1 +1" on a label affixed to the reverse
chromogenic print mounted to aluminum, in artist's frame
94 1/2 x 71 1/4 in. (240 x 181 cm)
Executed in 2014, this work is number 1 from an edition of 1 plus 1 artist's proof.

Full Cataloguing

$250,000 - 350,000 

Sold for $302,400

Contact Specialist

Patrizia Koenig
Specialist, Head of Day Sale, Afternoon Session
+1 212 940 1279

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Afternoon Session

New York Auction 16 November 2022