I had returned from Chicago just a few days before visiting the Belgian artist Luc Tuymans for the first time at his Antwerp studio. While in the United States, it was remarkable to hear people talking about his 2010–11 retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago many months after it had closed. Leading up to his two exhibitions later this autumn at David Zwirner’s gallery spaces in London (October 5–November 17) and New York (November 1–December 19), I discussed with Tuymans a number of subjects that come out of his two new bodies of work, including the questions they raise around the romanticized life of artists, the recurring issue of otherness in his work, and how a talking parrot in a charmingly ramshackle tapas bar close to his studio inspired the title for a series of new paintings.
Luc Tuymans: The whole idea around this group of work came about accidentally. James Lingwood [co-director of Artangel in London] asked me to make a painting for this cabin. There are now actually seven of those paintings, one still in the cabin. Normally it would’ve been a one-off. The idea for the cabin was loosely based on the boat that figures in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: In the book Kurtz says that he has made paintings, and so Lingwood asked me to do something. But all of a sudden I got this idea: I remembered this film from 1942 with George Sanders that was based on The Moon and Sixpence by Somerset Maugham. Sanders’s character was loosely based on Paul Gauguin. It was the very first, or a very early, representation of artists within a Hollywood framework, and they are shown as extremely egoistic and, of course, fully immoral, but in the end everything is forgiven because of the work. Now this is in itself quite a stupid movie, but what’s interesting and what I remember from it, is that right before the end there is a sequence that is completely improbable. This is the sequence out of which I took the stills for the imagery in the painting series. A doctor with a very thick German accent comes into the village where the main character is already deceased and this native woman is rolling in the sand, and then he goes into the hut and we get this colorful view of all the works, which are mock-ups of Gauguins, of course. So my idea was to prolong the imagery, to make more of it. It’s a joke on modernism, basically.
The other imagery—that still has to be made—likewise all deals with the idea of light, the idea of projection, and the idea of early film and color and so on.
The title of the London show actually comes from a parrot. There is a bar here, close to St. Paul’s Square, where I go because I am not recognized there, a sort of marginal bar. And the owners have a parrot, which is of course also colorful. And when you come in, the parrot always says, in the Antwerp slang, “Allo!”—and that’s the title of the show.
Nav Haq: Is the bar by any chance called Amberes?
Amberes, yes. The idea was to turn around the exotic. What’s also important is that there is always my reflection in the image, parts of my head or shoulders.
Can you tell me about the New York show?
It’s called “The Summer is Over,” and it’s all about the proximity of things and the fact that they become impenetrable. All these paintings: my leg, a chair, the window above the door of the façade, which is opposite the façade where I live, a piece of my jacket, an old film still projected on the studio wall. And these will all hang opposite only one painting, which is my self-portrait, called Me.
The portrait is a slightly smaller scale than the others.
Yes. It’s about the idea that you can’t go romanticizing the position of artists, in a sense destroying the idea, because the spectator here is the artist. It will make a very closed network, without anything except the physicality of these elements. It’s about working on the verge between abstraction and figuration, and working with things that are monumental. The two shows are totally different.
It sounds as if the two shows represent two perspectives on the life of an artist. The romantic representation in the film and, if you like, the mundane one from your own everyday reality.
That’s an interesting point. There is an idea that links the shows: The one in London you could say is referential because it refers to film, but it also refers to a film about an artist, and the other one doesn’t do that.
I have to ask about the filmic aspect of the London show, because it looks like, in a sense, the paintings pick up on transformative moments in cinema, especially in relation to the color. The use of Technicolor with the flower paintings, at the time I’m sure was really quite a spectacle, but now it looks highly artificial, almost like the color is floating on top of the image. Also with the “Allo!” paintings, they reference the transformative moment toward the end of The Moon and Sixpence where it becomes a color film. I’m really curious about why you were interested to work with these specific references
You could say the London show is very extroverted and the New York, very introverted. What interests me particularly is that for the paintings in London, I forced myself to go over my contrasts, which I actually don’t do, but I wanted to do it in these paintings. That’s also why I made six of them, because it was quite hard for me to make these six paintings—every one has to be good in itself. I never do series, either, because they have to be dispersed. They’re also made in reverse. Normally I paint starting with the lightest color, and then go into the contrasts. Here, I had to do the reverse in order to find the right strength of the color and the qualities of the darkest areas within the painting. So I really followed the idea of the projection. Also in the way they were made, because in fact they were all hand-colored, as in film.
I think the Gauguin reference is quite interesting. He occupies a very particular place, mainly in relation to how people discuss his life and work in post-colonial theory. People accuse him of being exoticist with his subject matter, particularly the representation of women in Tahiti
He also fucked these women, of course. That’s why they use Gauguin as an example of exoticism and abuse.
In a way, this idea of the projection of otherness that came with European imperialism is not new in your work. I’m thinking in particular about the paintings that reference Belgium’s colonial relationship to the Congo. It seems as if this question of otherness does inform these paintings as well.
Yes, that’s in there. It also shows the idiocy of believing in that type of exoticism—that is the harshness of the paintings themselves.
The paintings in the New York exhibition seem to focus on your daily life. They must all be from Antwerp.
Yes, all from Antwerp. This is a show about the vicinity and, at the same time, the idea that you cannot penetrate. In one I’m looking at this broken glass on the other side of the street, and the self-portrait comes from a photograph my wife took of me with the iPhone, where you also have my glasses, so you cannot enter. And the good thing about the self-portrait is the light that falls on it. On the other hand, it’s a sort of unforgiving portrayal of the self—it’s not beautifying, it’s just matter-of-fact.
Does this body of work need to be presented together?
I never feel a body of work should necessarily be kept together. Every painting should be on its own. Even with the monochrome series [for London] there was this talk of its being kept together, but, as I said, I think that’s a mistake. Think of Gerhard Richter’s October cycle, fantastic works that are now at moma. But when are they shown? Because the work is already there in its entirety, that’s the worst possible nightmare. When they are dispersed, there will always be the instigation to get them back together.
Also, the show in New York is clearly in a gallery space. The show in London is clearly in a habitat. I think it’s important to have these sorts of exotic elements displayed in that more intimate space.
I got the sense that the space in London has more of a domestic scale.
It’s a house. A generous space, I have to say, because the walls are reasonably high. But it’s not, by any means, the size of the space where the New York show is.
Because the paintings for your New York show are so rooted in the locale here, I’m inclined to ask you about Antwerp, a place that has a very significant artistic legacy.
For me, historically, it sure has. It’s also the city where I was born. It has changed a lot for the worse. What’s really important is the light. If I lived in California or Spain, it would be different. Most of the time it’s quite sunny there, and here most of the time it’s quite gray. But it has a specific luminosity, a translucent element, which you can retract in the painting. That was one of the most frequent remarks of the curators in Brussels, that they could see the works and the light in which they were made.
There’s an element of detachment in my work that becomes stronger and stronger, and the light is really extremely important. That’s something that is fascinating for me, because these London paintings sort of pushed me to accelerate the con-trast but also pushed me to think how to depict light, but not in a natural way. The show in New York is much more natural. The paintings for London are totally exaggerated, totally created, in a sense. The element of the projection is clear.
What else are you working on?
Together with the artistic director of the Galerie Neue Meister, in Dresden, I’m collaborating on curating a show around four main figures that are all from the same era but who all rendered in a non-academic way: Constable, Friedrich, Goya, and Delacroix. And then four living artists are included in the show: Per Kirkeby, Gerhard Richter, Jeff Wall, and myself.
What’s the reason for this particular grouping of artists in the show?
The reason is that it’s a European exhibition, and it’s interesting that it juxtaposes in one space works by Goya—which he painted on ivory—and works by Wall, Manet, and Rothko. You get a totally different experience of looking at these works. At the same time I will be making two murals to mark the centenary of the Dresden state theater—I’ll make them before we install the show. But I’ve always believed in the fact that you can never derive art from art. You must always derive art from reality.