Above: Freischwimmer # 84 (detail). Credit: Phillips/Wolfgang Tillmans

The Tillmans Market

It is interesting to observe how the Tillmans photo-art market has evolved recently. There is one strand of his work which comes up estimated to sell at hundreds-of-thousands of pounds. These works, the Freischwimmer series, are completely abstract. "A sustained meditation of observation and perception... hypnotic ... majestic and ethereal economy of line. As though galvanised by osmosis, a density of erupting emerald dye morphs and diffuses into pastel lime. Simultaneously, thin reels of colour float and curve, misting into opaque clouds of pigment before unravelling and dissolving across the surface of the image (Phillips on Freischwimmer # 84)."

Works from Tillmans's main oeuvre of socio-cultural image-making sell at much lower prices. The top thirty highest prices paid at auction for Tillmans photos are all examples of his abstract images. Meaning that the market considers the abstract works to be his most desirable and important. One way of reporting on, or interpreting, this market interest in the abstracts, is to consider it as an act of active sanitization. Tillmans's ordinary social documentary photos tend to problematize and challenge prevailing beliefs and assumptions, and the artist is sometimes directly involved in campaigning and activism. His photos can be quite political on topics like LGBT rights and climate change while the Freischwimmers are largely decorative.

It could be said that the art market has "conspired" to disinfect and purify Tillmans's work, downgrading the spiky and more controversial social commentary while emphasizing the most vacant, non-specific and ethereal images. It's one small example of how the market has, as it were, its own taste and aesthetic orientation; a taste which can be imposed upon any artist's work and may substantially alter perceptions of it.

(2 October 2019)