Luc Tuymans




Luc Tuymans


Tuymans is one of the most influential artists of his generation. In the nineties, he contributed to the revival of painting. With a minimal dash of paint, he tackles a broad range of topics and explores the boundary between representation and reality. We met in his atelier in Antwerp.

Tuymans is one of the most influential artists of his generation. In the nineties, he contributed to the revival of painting. With a minimal dash of paint, he tackles a broad range of topics and explores the boundary between representation and reality. We met in his atelier in Antwerp.

The idea of the artist as a hermit does not apply to you. You are quite an extrovert persona. 

The romanticized image of an artist is no longer relevant for more than a quarter century. I’ve been painting for 30 years now, have done 125 solo exhibitions, participated in 600 group exhibitions, written 80 monographs, given 2,000 lectures and workshops in many academies, and have curated 13 exhibitions. My path as an artist is quite diverse.

What do you enjoy doing most, besides painting? 

The curatorship is fascinating because it permits you to get started with the work of other artists. It allows you freedom, but you also bear the responsibility to the works and their creators. Curating is satisfactory because it offers you new, often completely different insights. At every exhibition, in which I have ever been involved, either as a curator, either as a participant, I have always been present during the build-up. For me, it’s important to oversee a project from start to finish.

Do you paint all year round or do you work in function of an exhibition?

For shows, I make about twenty paintings per year.  Painting itself is an intense process, which precedes a lot of preparation. I’ve never missed a deadline, unlike many artists who behave like prima donnas. Five months a year, I ‘m on the road building exhibitions, giving lectures and so on. The rest of the year I’m conceptualizing exhibitions.

So in your case, a painting is never spur-of-the-moment decision but always the result of extensive research?

Yes, and the preparation can take up months. To me, research consists of creating and searching images, decipher the meaning of these images, doing sketches and designing models. I only start to paint, when all of that is done. One day in advance I lay down my pallet. I start with the base color, which is never white, and then I paint the rest. I work in one go, extremely concentrated and focused until the painting is finished, which usually only takes one day. In my early days, my studio was less organized, and the process was much more excruciating, but then again, I was young.

You quit painting for a while, to be more involved with film. Is that a medium you’d like to explore once again in the future? 

I have the idea to pick up film again, yes. But at this moment I can not combine filming with painting. Both processes are very intensive. They also involve an entirely different way of working. Making a movie is teamwork, while I like to paint on my own.

In your atelier, it’s just you. But when you walk out the door, you’re surrounded by a small army of employees and gallery owners. 

The three people who work for me, help me out with the content and the administration, the transport, the archive, travel arrangements and publications. Then there’s Frank Demaegd of Zeno X Gallery in Antwerp who I have been working with for over 25 years. I’ve known David Zwirner in London and New York and Kiyoshi Wako of Wako Works of Art in Tokio for more than two decades. The three of them are mainly concerned with the art market in Europe, the United States and Asia, although their functions sometimes overlap. Collectors and buyers come more or less from the same pool.

In 2013 your painting ‘The Rumour’ got auctioned in New York for more than 2 million. That is an exuberant amount of money for a work by a living artist.

The art world is a speculative business, from which the gallery owners are trying to protect me. Especially from auction houses that make prices go through the roof. David (ed. Zwirner ) has often bought back work from these houses, thus organizing the sale himself to prevent collectors to dump my paintings on the auction market. Eventually, everyone gets the impression that a Tuymans is unaffordable. And that’s simply not true. My work is indeed very expensive and therefore reserved for the lucky few, who we check for solvency and reliability, to prevent speculation.

But surely you can’t deny that contemporary art in many cases is an attractive investment.

In the early nineties, one painting at Frank’s (ed. Frank De Maegd Zeno X Gallery) sold between 1,000 and 1,500 euros. When I exhibited in the United States in 1994, there was an immediate price increase. As a youngster, I thought the sky was the limit, and I estimated my work highly, even though I sold nothing. The art world is a billion dollar business. The return of investment I promise as an artist is higher than what you can expect from a private banker.

Is art experiencing exciting times? 

There is a small recession on its way in the art world, and there will also be a shift towards China. It’s crazy to think that my work is often more expensive than that of old masters. There is a complete discrepancy. Today is the result of a bubble, which I think will be corrected automatically. I’m not worried that the bubble will burst because there has already been invested so much in me by numerous museums and institutions all over the world that have bought my work. That one Tuymans would be worth so much, actually went beyond the comprehension of all my contemporaries. The thing is: if you want to be rich, don’t become an artist. Go and do something else instead.

If you hadn’t been an artist, what profession would you have pursued?

Since entrepreneurship runs in the family, undoubtedly I would have become a business person, a billionaire, and then we would not carry this conversation.

Text: Magali Elali Photography: Bart Kiggen
Luc Tuymans