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by David Coggins
Luc Tuymansí first U.S. retrospective opens Sept. 17, 2009-Jan. 3, 2010, at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio. Featuring over 70 works, the show is jointly organized with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where it subsequently appears, along with further stops in Dallas and Chicago. The European art world had already taken considerable note of the Antwerp-based Tuymans (b. 1958) before he had his first show in New York at David Zwirner in 1994.

Since then, what the Wexner calls "his stark, often muted canvases" exploring "issues of history and memory" have become immensely influential, not to say popular among museums and collectors (his auction record is $1,472,000, set in New York in 2005). We recently sat down in a back room at Zwirner and discussed -- as he smoked Marlboro Reds continuously -- the relevance of context, the dangers of political art and the importance of making silent paintings.

David Coggins: What was it like assembling this show of 70 paintings, and looking back over your career?

Luc Tuymans: Well, last year there was a traveling show that went to Budapest, which had 95 works. This show is different because itís made by two academics, Helen Molesworth from Harvard and Madeleine Grynsztejn, the director of the MCA in Chicago. These women have been working on the show for seven years. They had specific concepts for it -- they recreate three previous shows, and around these centers arrange the museum exhibition chronologically, which Iíve never done.

DC: Did they find different meaning in the work than if you had arranged it?

LT: Sure. We discussed it, and went through the bulk of the material, something like 450 works. We went through it all painting by painting, through all the collectors and collections and saw all the works in person. Then they made their choice.

DC: Your work has a lot to do with cultural touchstones.
Context is important to the work -- it depends where the work is seen. Your painting of Condoleezza Rice, which was shown in New York in 2005, is a perfect example.

LT: The "Hazmat" show from 1995 was a site-specific project for Hamburg, which is a stronghold of the very right-wing nationalist Flemish movement. Thatís not something to show in New York -- here it would have been purely exotic.

DC: Can you talk about your interest in power? Your work takes up themes of colonial power but also themes of cultural influence, like the "Walt Disney" paintings, which you showed in New York in 2008 under the title, "Forever: The Management of Magic."

LT: Itís not about morality, Iím intrigued by power. I donít want to exert power myself -- I donít think an artist should ever do that. I donít think art can be political. Art can have a political stance at a certain point in time, like Manet’s The Execution of Emperor Maximilian or Goyaís paintings; those were important when they were made and they have a certain purpose. But painting is never a trite linear way of thinking. I donít think art is derived from art, I think art is derived from reality.

Also I was always against style. In the show you can see that, on a painterly level the beginning is very stern, not only in the palette but also in the way itís more graphic. Then it becomes less graphic and the palette changes and I allow myself more painterly elements, more freedom in the work. I invoked a certain asceticism to prevent myself from developing a style.

DC: The "Disney" paintings are very abstract in a way. It was hard to place what was what and the paintings were so large, the viewer had to move forward and back to get a sense of what was what.

LT: Yes. That show was the most tightly knit show Iíve ever done in the States. The paintings were huge. Turtle is a spectacle thatís turned around into the unspectacular. I didnít want to do anything with Mickey Mouse. With the Disney work thereís an idea about utopia and a hidden agenda. It organizes the idea of fantasy into entertainment within the topography of Disneyland itself.

DC: Are you giving less information in your newer work -- are you trusting the audience more?

LT: Well, my working mode has changed. The first time I used Polaroids was in 1995. I work from drawings and Polaroids and what I find on websites. The early work is about what history could mean if you dream it, and how inadequate our memory is. From there it moves to more contemporary elements combined with elements of the banal. So a lampshade can become something different in combination with something else.

DC: You mentioned Polaroids. Can you talk about your relationship to photography and film? Thereís a quality of light, and in the Condoleezza Rice painting, for example, a sense that itís taken from another source.

LT: That painting has the feeling of a flat screen and itís the same size of a flat screen television. Sheís a public figure so you show her in a public way, without moralizing or pointing a finger. Iím from the television generation, which means growing up with a massive overdose of visual information. Also the television is so banal. Thereís a pause that happens with the work. Painting validates the image in a different way -- it becomes a certain type of icon that it never was intended to be.

DC: So thereís a friction between the banality of daily media images and the historic thrust of painting?

LT: Painting is something very physical, it leaves traces. It is so complex in terms of details. Viewers are important because they finish off the imagery. Thatís why you make art, that interactivity. They look at it at a distance that is immeasurable -- up close and then further away. Thatís why Iím a contemporary painter, because the idea of the whole is degraded into the idea of the detail. With the transmitted imagery of television, this is a pause, a slot in time.

DC: Do you think when an image is more beautiful, that weíre more suspicious of it? Do you take advantage of the contemporary suspicion of beauty?††

LT: Once I tried to make a painting of a sunflower that was happy. I started out and it just didnít work, itís not in my character. Iím very distrustful of imagery to begin with -- even my own. When people start to think when they see an image thatís really something. †There are large doses of paranoia in our society -- itís an invention of modern society, so there are those elements all play in.

I always took violence as a basic underlying structure in my work. The element of being afraid is a specific fascination.

DC: You once said that "art is not political, life is political." Did you say that because you donít like being called a political artist, that itís too moral?

LT: I want a more open-ended effect. I donít think there are any political artists. There are people who make art with political content. If they do this in a very linear way they dilute the artistic content. Art should have a lot of different interpretations and not just one: otherwise you have propaganda.

DC: For many years youíve taken images from the past, but when you painted Condoleezza Rice that was very contemporary and recognizable. It was quite surprising.

LT: The most difficult moment is deciding what to paint. Iím a painter who works with imagery that already exists, imagery that is figurative. An abstract painter would be much more emotive. It takes a long while before I take on a project. I make drawings, I try to come to a conclusion. The painting process which is actually the smallest in terms of time. Every painting is painted in a day.

DC: Is that true? Iíve heard that but never knew for sure.

LT: Itís the only possibility. I only have an attention span thatís that long. In my case painting is about timing and precision, once you lose it you lose it. Thatís the only way I can do it. That doesnít mean I donít come back and work on details or change a color.

This can be a long day, but it goes on continuously -- I donít leave the studio, I bring my food, I bring water, I stay there. Thatís the point where I shut off the brain and put it in my hands. There are two elements of intelligence: the mental one and the physical one. You can try to combine them but you wonít really function.

DC: Do you ever have a point of discovery after somethingís been painted or have you always resolved it ahead of time?

LT: There are a few -- the Body painting is an example of something happening on the spot. The Soldier painting was the same. They werenít working out and I made changes. Having worked on this for many years one knows all the tricks. The innocence leaves you and you get more particular and precise.

Itís like having stage fright -- I cannot work on a blank canvas. When I work, the canvas is not on a stretcher itís on the wall. Itís primed and then I paint the lightest color first, I have to have a material on it already. I donít project anything -- I make a drawing of what Iím going to do in the wet paint. Then I wipe that out a little bit and the painting jumpstarts. And then after three hours of that (or four of five), until I get to the middle of the process -- itís horrific. Itís like I donít know what Iím doing but I know how to do it, and itís very strange. Iím amazed at the end when it works out -- I donít always know how it happened. Itís still strange for me: It alienates me from the work.

DC: You said that you lost your innocence awhile ago -- did you know when that happened or only after the fact?

LT: You never know when that happens. The more conscious you are of what youíre doing the more conscious you are of how youíll react. Itís a question of detachment -- the older you get the more able you get. Because thatís the aim: you want to eventually disappear. I would like to have a chance -- it will probably never happen -- to look through the eyes of any spectator and see my own work, and be completely detached. That would be the ideal.

DC: Youíre work deals with the intersection of both types of history. Can you talk about the difference between art history and history at large?

LT: I studied art history and itís not really a science -- itís highly hypothetical. Itís full of intellectual assumptions that cannot be proven, itís too far away from the visual. As an artist, you pursue the visual until it reaches a point where you lose speech. For me a painting should be totally silent, it should not be a reminder of music or sound. Thatís why I hate Kandinsky.

I come from a region renowned for painting. Van Eyck was probably -- and still is -- the most powerful painter in the Western Hemisphere -- thereís nothing else. Itís not Leonardo da Vinci, itís not Michelangelo, itís Jan Van Eyck. What did he do? He was the first one who crawled out of the mimetic image of the Middle Ages and the religious dogma. There was no dilettantism -- after Van Eyck there was dilettantism. And thatís what we are: dilettantes.

I come out of a country where painting is genetically understood. Highly Catholic because Catholics like images because they keep the people stupid. Western image building was born in that region, and of course huge trauma with it. Thereís always a debate among Belgians, between Ensor and Magritte, that itís between the grotesque and the surreal, but itís much more about reality. Itís always been about Realism, ever since Jan Van Eyck. Thereís no Romanticism in my country. Weíre just not friendly people. Weíve been ruled by wars and warlords, so the opportunism is at a very high standard.

DC: You talked about imagery and propaganda. Your paintings have a certain skepticism, and yet youíre a practitioner of imagery even as you are wary of it.

LT: There are clear examples of how you can influence people, publicity for instance. The images of women and youngsters, for example, are derived from what the visual says. Pornography has a huge impact on sexual behavior. These things didnít exist in the same way as the pre-war era.

DC: Are you fascinated by the internet with all the access to visual information?

LT: I do not use a computer. I work with a bright young assistant and sometimes we browse the internet. Sometimes something falls out of the system and then you pursue it. I see technology as a tool that I use. Some things can come from a film still or a drawing or a photograph and theyíre all valid -- itís the imagery that has to be relevant.

DC: When you find an image where does your interest begin? Does it tend to have historical relevance?

LT: Itís the visual itself, it intrigues you. You remember things that youíve seen. Those are things that cling to you and then you work them out.

DC: How does that process work itself out? Do you sketch or re-create things? How do you get to the point where youíre ready to go into the studio?

LT: For the older works I made drawings. Sometimes we alter photographs through a computer. †

DC: Whatís your relationship toward contemporary painting?

LT: I think thereís been a great deal of mumbo-jumbo about whether painting is dead or alive. Art criticism goes very badly wrong over-contextualizing situations. That has nothing to do with the medium. Itís not so much the medium that decides anything itís how you use it -- it can be photography, film. If you find a way to re-activate the medium and make it relevant -- thatís where the discussion should be. The discussion should not be about Ėisms or whatís the most progressive medium. If you look at painting thatís been declared dead time and time again. But thereís still a great deal of painting around and itís one of the most expensive artifacts on the globe. When people ask me why do you still paint I say because Iím not naÔve. The life of an artist is inhumane to begin with.

DAVID COGGINS is a New York writer and critic.