Authentic forgeries of a dilettante
Behind an anonymous garage door in Antwerp’s Borgerhout district lies the studio of one of the world's most famous painters. Luc Tuymans’ latest exhibition Against the Day, with 20 new works, opens this week at Wiels in Brussels.
Luc Tuymans stages his first-ever show in Brussels
When he lets me in, I feel like I’m entering the inner sanctum of contemporary art. My heart skips a beat (or two) when I see that all the new paintings, bar one, are hanging against the walls of his studio. While being given a private tour by the artist himself I realise, once again, what a lucky bastard I am.
But there's no time to linger on the fringe benefits of being a journalist; I am here to talk art. Tuymans' works are always based on pre-existing images: Polaroids, film stills, magazine clippings, images found on the internet. All can be the starting point for a painting. He calls them “authentic forgeries”.
"No visual output can be original because it's always generated by one's memory,” Tuymans says. “It was an enormous shock when I realised that because, as a beginning artist of not yet 20, I nourished grand notions of art. I figured out the problem quite quickly, but it cost me years before I had the distance – mentally and physically – to work with images in an appropriate manner. I firmly believe a piece art can only exist if it's a forgery."
But forgery suggests that the paintings are trying to be something they aren't. "Indeed!” he exclaims. “A piece of art is exactly what it isn't. If what you see is what you get, art will never be multi-layered. And univocal art is either propagandist or extremely ostentatious."
It’s, like, a concept
Marc Ruyters, the first art critic to ever write about Tuymans and nowadays editor-in-chief of the influential magazine <H>Art, called Tuymans’ work “conceptual paintings”. That would seem to suggest that the paintings only gain significance if one knows the ideas behind them.
"That certainly goes for my work,” confirms Tuymans. “That's why I am a painter whose work is rooted in reality and not in the imagination – reality is much more important. I think that this penchant for realism is typically Belgian; this isn't a very romantic country."
Then Tuymans really goes out on a limb: “In the western hemisphere, there has been only one truly great painter: Jan Van Eyck. And not Leonardo da Vinci!” Jan Eyck, the 15th century Netherlandish painter, “was subjected to religious dogmas that reigned over art and science, but he was still able, by way of heightening reality, to disconnect the Christian image from its mimetic representation – a feat that has never been paralleled thereafter.” After denying that Belgium is a country of surrealism, calling Magritte “not a true surrealist” and Ensor “not a true expressionist,” he states, with calm acceptance: “Like everyone else who came after Van Eyck, I'm just a dilettante.”
The Tuymans Tour
Starting this autumn, a large retrospective of Tuymans’ work, curated by Helen Molesworth of Harvard University and Madelein Grynsztejn, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, will tour the United States. From Columbus, Ohio, via San Francisco and Dallas, it ends in Chicago. In 2011 the exhibition will halt at Bozar in Brussels, the artist’s first Belgian retrospective.
And Against the Day is his first solo exhibition in Brussels, Wiels likes to stress. “That's important, indeed, because Brussels' art circles have for years been biased against me,” says Tuymans, who turned 50 last year. “Maybe that will change now.”
It was only recently, he says, that the bookshop of the Museum of Modern Art, housed in Brussels’ Museum of Fine Arts complex, sold any books about him, “even though there are 30 titles to choose from”. His Antwerp gallery, Zeno X, puts aside works for Brussels museums to no avail. “They were never convinced,” he says, “until one day they woke up and had to pay an atrocious amount of money for it.”
The reason? “The Francophone Brussels art world blindly follows the Parisian art world, and Paris is the only city in the world where they don't like my work. I'm considered too German.”
With Wiels, says Tuymans, “Brussels, and Belgium for that matter, finally have an institution for contemporary art that could become an international player. Their Mike Kelley exhibition, for instance, was magnificent."
The money will follow
Tuymans has reached the comfortable position of deciding to whom he sells his work. “My galleries and I work to end up in the right spot. Moreover, we want to counter speculation as much as possible. Call it self-protection. The past 12 years we have sold more to museums and foundations than to individual collectors.”
Which means, I suggest, that he probably doesn’t get the highest price possible for his paintings. “I think the prices are more than high enough,” he responds. “And after the American tour, they’ll probably rise even more.”
He also points out that being in a museum is a testament to the value and importance of one’s work. Eleven American museums have a painting by Tuymans in their collections, and New York’s famous MoMA has 20.
Does he ever feel inclined to keep a painting to himself? I’m almost sorry I asked. "Never! From a financial point of view, that's actually stupid because if I had, I could capitalise on them now. But I don't have a fetishist relationship with my work. For instance, the new ones already bore me. The only thrilling moment will be the build-up of the exhibition at Wiels. Because you can never predict beforehand if the paintings will work in the designed space."
Only four years ago Tuymans moved to this spacious studio in Antwerp. "At first I was afraid to move, since I'd been working for 30 years in my previous studio.” But that was a small space that limited the size of his paintings. When he wanted to paint a larger work, he had to rent a larger space. And the old studio had other inconveniences: “Leaks, problems with the electricity and no heating. That might sound romantic, but, believe me, it wasn't." He could have moved to another city, but “I have to travel a lot, and it's always a joy to come back to this megalomaniac village, Antwerp."
Rumour has had it that Tuymans plans to downsize his output. "That's a misconception,” he says. He’s actually in the process of delegating more of the practical matters, which should give him more time to paint, “and hopefully I'll recover some profundity,” he says. “I'm curious how a longer incubation period might alter my work.”