Wolfgang Tillmans

4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(4user reviews)
Wolfgang Tillmans, 'Paper drop (New York) II', 2008. Courtesy of the artist © Wolfgang Tillmans.
Wolfgang Tillmans, 'Paper drop (New York) II', 2008. Courtesy of the artist © Wolfgang Tillmans.

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

It’s almost like Wolfgang Tillmans has a problem with photography. Everything the Turner Prize-winning German artist does kicks against the traditional view of the camera as a tool for documenting the world. It’s a nice idea, but it’s a total failure. Because this sweeping, in-depth show is the ultimate form of art as documentary: it’s a massive, sprawling visual diary, it’s the artist’s life laid bare as an exhibition. Though individual works may fight against the tide, this is a career as a single snapshot of a person.

He tries to throw you off the scent, though. There are no wall texts and each room’s vague theme overlaps with the next. But his aesthetic is immediate. His photographs – whether of an African street scene, a close-up of a man’s anus or a gushing waterfall – are crisp, neat, clear and sensual. His composition and eye for strip-lit colour saturation are uniquely and beautifully Tillmans.

The show opens with photos of printers and Sunset Boulevard. Then his camera takes you into the studio, then through a room of travel photography, and then you’re whizzed past tables loaded with articles from the internet about post-truth and Brexit alongside abstract photographs and intimate images of men and more dusty street scenes. And that’s before you even get to the room of photos of smoky nightclubs and lovers with their hands thrust down each other’s pants.

It’s a rush – there’s so much to digest, so many gorgeous images, so many overlapping ideas. Each room is a like a mini-photo essay, full of big images, tiny images, and concepts for you to untangle.

The ‘playback room’ that follows is weak: a bunch of chairs facing big speakers so you can hear studio-quality music in perfect definition. All it shows is that Tillmans is interested in music and curation. So what, who isn’t? It’s a pointless addition that tells you nothing and gives you nothing.  The next room is full of his exhibition catalogues, which are interesting and important to his work, but boy does it stretch your patience. It’s all just too indulgent.

The rooms that follow are better, filled with portraiture, a series of images about borders and a video of Wolfie dancing in his Y-fronts. There are hundreds of pictures in this show, and Tillmans doesn’t make it easy. it's complex, confusing and multi-layered. But he’s pleading with you to follow him on a powerfully personal journey. Everything here is a moment of his life: his lovers, his youth, his obsessions, his fears, his art, his politics. It’s brutal, and the images are so fragile, held on the wall with crocodile clips or sticky tape – they’re out there, exposed. 

There are great works here – the static-charged abstracts and folded pieces, the painfully intimate sexual snapshots – and some not so great works. But it’s honest. Its peaks are high and its troughs are truthful, just like life: what more could you ask for from an artist?



Users say (4)

4 out of 5 stars

Average User Rating

4.3 / 5

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1 person listening

Less of an exhibition, more of a studio visit. The show curated by Wolfgang seemed chaotic and incoherent, without much of the usual wall descriptions; it may be deliberately so. Majority of the pieces hung on clippers, or taped on walls to reinforces the experience.

Although some structure was given for different rooms, with brief descriptions in the booklet, the overlapping pieces confuse the point to give priority to continuity. The sound room described by the TimeOut reviewer as "weak", and "pointless" provided a clear and welcomed break to the massive collection of work/images. It dedicates an entire room for the action of listening, as one would for an image.

The collection is eclectic, varies in quality, and emphasis. Prepare to hate it as much you love it, as there's bound to be a piece that infuriates you displayed next to the one you love.


An eclectic mix of photography bought together to show the modern issues in 2017. This is not a retrospective. Wolfgang has curated an exhibition which brings together his favourite pieces to show what's relevant in today's day and age of 2017!

At first I wasn't sure - as you make your way through the eclectic photography you get to see a real picture of who he is. My favourite piece was the weed. It shows the beauty in a plant which we all rip out of them ground and see as a bad thing!!! But actually it's beautiful.

The last room for me shows really issues in 2017 of refugees and the idea of borders across the world.

Please all go this is one of my favourite exhibitions at the Tate for a long time.


This is Tillman's first major show at the Tate since his historic win of the Turner Prize in 2000. For a super fan such as myself that makes it one long-awaited show as despite being based between London and Berlin, and frequently showing the developments of his portfolio and projects at his affiliated Maureen Paley gallery in Bethnal Green, there has rarely been an opportunity such as this to view his photographic work in its typically impressive scale and breadth since the turn of the millennia.

As explained in the exhibition booklet Tillmans is loathe to label it a retrospective, and while he is just 48 and still rapidly producing such immediate and at once enduring imagery then he can't really be blamed. You would be forgiven for feeling nonetheless that it closely resembles one as each and every of the 14 carefully curated rooms blends work from all stages of his already lengthy career in the art world, with each style of presentation quietly reflecting some of his previously adopted and preferred methods.

The show is vast and varied with a perfect mixture of very early work, older work newly tweaked, brand new and previously unseen work and even a sound room with a clever concept that he has not presented in London before. For anyone even vaguely fond of Tillmans' empathetic photography and tactile exhibition style, this show at the Tate is essentially a few hours of the finest art therapy available. In a politically tumultuous and unpredictable time, Tillmans' gaze provides a moment of measured and calculated calm, a brief escape to breathe deeply and appreciate the best of us and what we are capable of.


My first thought when navigating my way through the 14 rooms full of Wolfgang Tillmans work was "What a weirdo" but the more I saw the more I warmed towards him. He has such a vast amount of work, some really good, some not so good and some you just think why? But I do really admire that he documents his world without following any rules. As a photography student I sometimes feel pushed into having to find my own style and stick to a genre but this show has opened my eyes and I now feel that I can just photograph what the hell I like!