Artist Luc Tuymans says of his elusive, sometimes eccentric, and seemingly misprinted paintings: “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I know how to do it.” The Belgian’s paintings don’t make the eye pop quite like the bold work of American street artist Kaws, the glowing, kaleidoscopic pumpkins of Yayoi Kusama of Japan, or English artist David Hockney’s splashy landscapes and portraits on smartphones, now showing at the Tate Gallery in London. It’s strange then that Tuymans is credited with being the man that saved painting from itself in the early 1990s.
So deft, yet so undeveloped, and so quiet seem his canvases that we cannot but wonder whether he’s being stingy with the paint. We feel like a blind man in a black room searching for a black cat which isn’t there. Tuymans toys with us. His sleight of hand teases our eye. His art looks easy or, at least, Tuymans makes it look easy. But his work contains incredible precision.
Tuymans makes the amateur aesthete work hard for his or her reward. Because his art never forces your eye or your other senses, you’re unsure when or where the interaction with the subject happens. Looking at a Tuymans is like looking at morning mist outside the window and wondering when the sun’s rays will sharpen your focus on the world.
A smattering of the Antwerp-born artist’s works will be on display thorugh New York-based dealer David Zwirner as part of Art Basel in Hong Kong this month. Zwirner has represented Tuymans for the past two decades, and Tuymans is taking the opportunity to show new works. These include ‘Twenty Seventeen,’ painted for his own gallery Zeno X in Antwerp, and inspired by a Brazilian film Tuymans saw on YouTube. There are three portraits, including K and C, both inspired by billboards Tuymans saw in Panama, and a third entitled ‘The Swamp’.
Tuymans and his generation grew up heavily influenced by cinema, television, advertising, shopping and latterly the Internet. The painter’s favourite film is Jean Luc-Godard’s “Le Mépris (Contempt) from 1963. “The film reaches an epic point on an unconscious level,” he says. “The whole concept, at the point we’re living in now, is quite interesting.”
In conversation, Tuymans often mentions the political dimension of Europe and the part Belgium plays in it, specifically how Brussels remains capital of the European Union—as if we might be in danger of forgetting. And talk of Low Countries art in the 14th and 15th century animates him. The painter’s artistic hero and villain is the 15th century Flemish master Jan Van Eyck.
“‘The Arnolfini Portrait’ is one of my preferred paintings,” Tuymans says. Van Eyck’s work of a bride and groom depicts a mirror in the background which reflects the backs of his subjects and the figure of the painter. “It’s clearly something I envy because I would never, ever be able to do that. Coming from this region and having this f***** there, which is Van Eyck, is hard to take.”
Tuymans first set foot in mainland China in 2008, bringing an exhibition called Forbidden Empire: Visions of the World by Chinese and Flemish Masters, which was first shown at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. It was transplanted to the Palace Museum in the Forbidden City in Beijing, where Yu Hui was the chief curator. In 2010, Tuymans returned to the mainland with The State of Things: Brussels/Beijing, shown in Beijing at the National Art Museum. His co-curator was Ai Weiwei. The exhibition was also first shown at the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels.
Tuymans is familiar with the mainland and the Chinese are familiar with him, and he is intrigued by how readily they have taken to his paintings. “What could be the interest in my work? There is an element of understatement which, in a way, they have and don’t have. It’s fascinating to them, I think. The work is also not really ‘poppy’. It also has an element of where I come from, which is clearly Europe, but I think it mostly has to do with the element that China has reservations. They are themselves very pragmatic. It is probably the cautiousness of the work that might interest them and still does, I hope.”
Tuymans pauses before making another broad mental brushstroke. I think that’s also another thing we have in common with the Chinese; an element of opportunism,” he says. “When you work with them there are resemblances, in that it’s hard to do something micro. We are very big in terms of creative thought. Having works with the Japanese, there is a big difference between the two. With the Japanese there’s an extreme emotion of trying to crack the code. But with the Chinese, it’s another form of pragmatism. It makes it all the more intelligent, somehow.”
The reaction Van Eyck provokes in him betrays an intensity in Tuymans which is reflected in his paintings, the longer and more closely we look at them. It is an intensity bordering on anger and even violence. The ease of his work and its disarming calm hide sinister undertones. Conversely, when a painting reflects the political anger of Tuymans, the indirectness of his style is disarming.
Some have called Tuyman’s ‘The Secretary of State’ the equivalent of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘Mona Lisa’. When the younger George Bush was United States President, Condoleezza Rice was his Secretary of State, being the first black woman to hold that office. Tuymans was inspired to paint her by comments made by his friend Karel De Gucht, the Belgian foreign minister at the time. De Gucht described Rice as “quite intelligent” and “not unpretty”. Her portrayal as powerful yet somehow vulnerable evokes the persistence of racial and sexual prejudices in the US. The painting mirrors the Dubya era.
“Condoleezza Rice was a particular choice, a particular moment in time, very topical, as she was still Secretary of State,” Tuymans says. “But my fascination was this element of containment that nobody has yet figured out so far. Even as we speak right now, nobody has figured out what Condoleezza Rice was all about. We know what she stood for but that, again, is not the entirety of the person.” One gallery owner told Tuymans he had done for Rice what Andy Warhol did for Marilyn Monroe.
Tuymans still has the US in his sights. “When something becomes a laughing stock, it’s funny, but very dangerous, too. To do something about the US right now is becoming very complicated,” he says. “America is a nation of immigrants coming from the region I come from. This [is] the important thing that people tend to forget.”
But the artist trains his sights on other aspects of the modern world, too, such as the agonies of the Congo; Russia under Vladimir Putin, whom he describes as a tsar “playing the world”; and the role France plays in Europe.
Tuymans also draws a bead on artists of the modern age. “I never liked the work of Warhol. But then it took me a while, and I saw a show and realized that black was a very important item for Warhol. But, at the same time, he had the element of authority in print, which was interesting for a painting. Despite being superficial, it was very analytical.”
El Greco’s paintings, “not even good ones”, says Tuymans, are “very modern, despite the majesty, and have a certain temperature about them”. He calls them “the first paintings to deconstruct imagery, which I find interesting and difficult to remember”. Velasquez earns his acknowledgement too, “just because he’s such a great painter”. Tuymans compares Velasquez and Goya but favours the latter. “Later in life, Goya interests me more. He’s more uneven. But he’s very annoying,” he says. Then, quelling his annoyance, he adds: “At the end of his life, Goya was isolated”.
Maturity has given Tuymans a greater sense of what he is doing and how he does it. “There must always be, not the unexpected, but an element of pleasure,” he says. “Knowing and not knowing is an element of curiosity. After more than 600 paintings, it was never the [purpose at the] outset to have a style.”
David Zwirner represents another Belgian artist, Michaël Borremans, whom he brought to Art Basel in Hong Kong last year. Borremans spoke of how he paints best when he “feels like the aristocrat in the room, drinking a glass of wine and gliding around”. In contrast, Tuymans plays no such role to do his best work. “The only persona I would take on is a sort of non-persona,” he says.
Tuymans spends months planning a picture, then paints it in one day. “That day, I mentally prepare. When I start the work, it is total concentration,” he says. When he is in front of the canvas, he does no thinking. Other artists, he says, believe they ought to be thinking when they are holding a brush.
“I know very carefully what I’m doing, and have no illusions in that sense,” Tuymans says. “When I’m in the middle of the painting, and the colours begin to assemble themselves, that’s where the pleasure starts. After a day that can be a long day, my level of astonishment is at what has been achieved. It’s not so much taking on a persona as being totally flabbergasted by the fact that this becomes a possibility.”
Yet more feelings accompany the astonishment. “The nervousness remains, like an actor going on the stage. That’s important, because there also has to be a high level of humility, and that’s a very important point. This goes back again to my big role model, Jan Van Eyck, who I could never be able to perceive as an equal. He is so f****** talented it’s not even fun. He’s so hard-edged. He had an interesting motto: ‘I can’. He was big on humility but behind that had the most gargantuan ambitions.” Look who’s talking.