Belgian artist Luc Tuymans is perhaps best known for challenging the post Abstract Expressionism debate about the relevancy of painting by taking on subjects as Belgian colonialism, the Holocaust and the War on Terror. In his tenth exhibition at David Zwirner in New York, The Summer is Over, Tuymans scrutinizes the relevance of capturing reality in painting. Alluding to ghosts of the present and future, the works are tender, muted and enigmatic, but less sparsely colored and less ethereal than previous series. Reaching an unprecedented large scale, these new works ponder the mystery of the immediate, the everyday, the mundane through a simple and detached meditation. The large brushstrokes evoke the technique of pointillism and the viewer stands way back to capture the monumental pictures, and the endlessness of time spent in a studio. With shows at the Museum of Modern Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Documenta XI and Venice Biennale behind him, the prolific Tuymans is a rising superstar in the contemporary art world. I had the unique opportunity to speak with him about citizenship in a globalized world and industry, his inspirations and the beginning of a new approach to his painting style.
You are renowned as a rather exotic and rising legend of contemporary painting in the global art world, while in Belgium people know you as more provincially as an “Antwerpenaar.” Does this dual identity play in to your work? Why have you remained in Antwerp throughout your career, when your success seems much greater and expressly sought after in the US?
I relate to the European identity before I relate to the Belgian identity or that of Antwerp, when I am abroad. I do love Antwerp, however, where I come from, and the intricacies of the city’s personality which includes, for example a rather know-it-all cut-and-dry suspiciousness but also an immensely fascinating history deriving from the middle ages. I love Belgium also. There is a deep history of radical creativity and invention (from Jan Van Eyck, to James Ensor to Rene Magritte – to name but the visual arts) brought on by all the different cultural and linguistic diversity in this small country, as well as by its centrality in Europe. I remain because of my perceived ability to more strongly develop my individual history there, more connected to its past ghosts that live on. For me culture is not made to establish borders. It is rather, like time or like light, something that permeates through many moments and eras, and lives outside of the individual. And so, I travel as much as possible to different places, with a sense of openness and curiosity – letting the culture of others permeate.
I guess in my paintings you can see this idea of permeation and the belonging of everything to everything somehow. I very rarely use outlines in my work and very much build from the light – I want it to spill over into the scene, into the room and take over the viewer, bringing them inside of the piece in return. My works are rarely defined by exact graphism, lines, bold coloring or judgment, even in the faces I paint. The viewer is hereby pulled in by the questions that jump out of the works that are just snap shots from out of the past. And so, for example, the Belgian colonial history, or scenes from the 1942 film The Moon and Sixpence, or my own everyday scenes and surroundings (Summer is Over), become part of the viewer’s history, its scenes haunting them. I often work with snapshots retrieved from the media, and in a sense do what these images do; become part of the life and the visual memory bank, of the viewer. These images continue to exist on the World Wide Web ad infinitum. Through my method of painting the image is communicated in rough strokes, in my language, and lives with the viewer in that way going forward.
How do you feel your work has evolved over the past ten years, and is this exhibition a milestone in that evolution? Can you describe how you attained this style of painting, where lines are rare and boundaries blurred, colors are often over-exposed and you closely zoom in on your scenes and figures?
Over the past ten years my work has evolved as necessity required it to, deriving from reality in many ways. The paintings in Summer is Over are more large-scale than ever before, partially because I now have a much larger studio space with which I am exploring. My painting style of the past must adapt to the needs of the present. The brushstrokes of a smaller canvas must fit a new show – the work becomes more abstract, the light expands even further, overexposing the images even more. In that way my painting is always evolving; to my interests, to politics, to space…This series of paintings represents both that new beginning as well as a certain sense of closure that I feel I have achieved at this ten year milestone. It is very much existential, very introspected, very intimate and in the moment but also very oppositional. There is a lot of juxtaposition, firstly because previous shows have really been about the past, or politics in the present – things I was observing from afar. I’m more up close now. Secondly, the works are deadpan images of the fragility and finiteness of things – like glass and people (me). On the other hand they are monumental, endless due to their abstraction and translucence – while also being flat and impenetrable. I was really influenced by the artist Ferdinand Knopf who believed art had to suggest the mystery behind visible facts and facades. Not only based in the study of technique, but also in the study of subject matter, the series is a detached meditation on banal things I see constantly around me and denotes a jumping off point for a development of both self and style. This exhibition also includes my only existing self-portrait.
Do you find it important for artists to be able to explain the meaning of their work?
I do find it important for artists to share their thoughts, experiences and processes. The artist’s temperament is the engine behind the brush. It is just as much a part of their work, as the final product and as the viewer’s experience. In as much, I have produced a publication, together with Ludion publishing house, compiling my past ten years at David Zwirner Gallery.
How do you hope to be remembered in 100 years?
As an artist with a healthy sense of suspicion (translated from “gezond wantrouwen”).
Luc Tuymans’ The Summer is Over will be on view at David Zwirner through February 9, 2013.